As we all wander through this limbo-like week between Christmas and the dawn of a New Year, it’s easy to miss little morsels of news zipping over the wires. But here’s one that shouldn’t go unnoticed: DirecTV this week launched another satellite into space. So what? Well, Mon’s successful launch of DIRECTV 12 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan should enable DirecTV to boost by more than 50% its self-described current lineup of more than 130 HD nets.
According to DirecTV, it will soon be able to offer well over 200 HD channels and also increase the number of local markets able to receive its signals. It’s unclear whether all of these nets will be available across its entire service territory (cable has accused DBS ops of double-counting their HD nets in the past), and the satellite won’t be operational until sometime within the first half of 2010. But make no mistake: The prospect of a major cable competitor significantly boosting its video capacity could create big challenges for cable next year.
DirecTV is already trash talking a little bit. In a statement, DirecTV CTO Romulo Pontual said the launch provides “the capacity to dramatically expand HD and movie choices for our customers and further extend our content and technology leadership… we are able to provide our customers with an unparalleled viewing experience and maintain a significant competitive advantage for many years to come.”
Now, many cable operators might balk at the “significant competitive advantage” assessment. After all, cable has several advantages over DirecTV, including the pricing and packaging benefits of the Triple Play, a fast-evolving authentication initiative (Comcast’s beta shows encouraging signs) and of course an increasingly robust VOD product that becomes better every day. But DirecTV execs know their strengths and weaknesses well. They know their only chance against cable ops and telcos is to focus 100 percent on video—more specifically the company’s HD lineup.
Cable’s challenge over the next year and beyond will be matching DirecTV—not only when it comes to choice in the form of time shifted HD content through VOD but also on the linear side of the equation where many viewers still predominantly roam. It’s a tough balance for cable, as the future seems undeniably tied to the “anything, anytime, anywhere” revolution. But DirecTV’s new satellite launch should remind everyone that linear TV remains important for the foreseeable future, especially when it comes to the battle for HD dominance.
(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX).

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