Pity the Los Angeles residents who lug home pricey high-definition television sets only to find that most of their shows don't look much better.
The entertainment capital of the world ranks last among the five biggest U.S. markets in the number of high-definition channels available to cable-TV subscribers. New York, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia all get far more, as do such smaller cities as San Diego and Charlotte, N.C.
Southern California's No. 1 pay-TV provider, Time Warner Cable Inc., can't improve its systems fast enough to keep up with demand for the sharper pictures of high-definition.
The company, which serves 1.9 million customers across Southern California, has promised to add 12 high-definition channels by July 1, and nine more by the end of the year, but cynical subscribers aren't buying it.
On High Def Forum, a website for HD enthusiasts, local residents mocked Time Warner's announcement this month that new channels would come soon, saying they had heard that talk before. Some customers have complained to the company, while others have left it for satellite rivals.
If someone shells out $1,000 or more for a television with better resolution, it seems he would want programming to match. Scott Benson, a 27-year-old Los Feliz resident, loves the crystal-clear images on his 42-inch Sony and thinks regular television is like watching "with Vaseline on the screen."
Time Warner's high-definition channel lineup disappoints Benson. And his apartment building forbids satellite dishes, so he can't switch to satellite-TV providers DirecTV or Dish Network, which offer far more high-definition channels, for sharper versions of Discovery, CNN, A&E; and others.
"It makes you feel trapped," Benson said. For TV, he would be better off moving back in with his mom in a suburb of Boston, where she receives twice as many high-definition channels from Comcast Corp.
In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, 1.5 million households own high-definition televisions, and 80% of them receive at least one high-definition channel, according to Nielsen Co., a research firm. (An HDTV set also displays regular programming, although no more sharply than a regular television.)
Time Warner offers 16 high-definition channels to Benson and other basic-cable subscribers in the L.A. area. Its customers get 38 high-definition channels in San Antonio, 23 in San Diego and Dallas, 22 in New York and 18 in Charlotte, N.C.
In south Orange County, Cox Communications Inc. offers 36 high-definition basic channels, while Charter Communications Inc. offers 21 in Long Beach and 20 in the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley.
San Diego resident Kylan Mandile, 27, switched to DirecTV from Time Warner two months ago. He and his roommate decided it was worth an extra $30 a month so they could see more high-definition sports and HBO on their 42-inch Panasonic TV.
"Once you're used to watching HD, it's hard to go back," Mandile said.
Time Warner became the dominant cable-TV provider in the Greater Los Angeles area in mid-2006, when it joined with Comcast to buy out bankrupt Adelphia Communications Corp. Then Time Warner swapped franchises with Comcast so each would have dominant markets in different parts of the U.S.
The combination proved costly because Time Warner Cable had to revamp and upgrade Adelphia's and Comcast's old franchises and meld them with its own. Customers swamped call centers with complaints about Internet and e-mail outages, TV channel lineup changes and, especially, the hours they spent on hold to fix things.
"In the last stages of Adelphia's existence, they were bleeding money," said analyst Kurt Scherf at Parks Associates, a consulting and research firm. "They were putting very little into infrastructure upgrades."
Satellite provider DirecTV offers 32 high-definition channels as part of its basic package and Dish Network offers 28. Telecommunications provider Verizon Communications Inc. is installing a fiber-optic network that it calls FiOS, with 32 high-definition channels and plans for 150 basic and premium high-definition channels by the end of the year.
But Verizon offers FiOS only in cities where it provides phone service; in California that's mainly along the coast, along the San Gabriel River and in the Inland Empire.
The cable companies have their own territories too, and don't compete against one another. Many renters, such as Benson, are forbidden from installing a satellite dish.
That means Time Warner isn't feeling the heat from strong competitors offering more channels, as it is in markets such as San Antonio, Scherf said.
Time Warner spokeswoman Robyn Watson said the company "does take customers' requests into consideration," and blamed the problem on "integration issues we inherited from Adelphia and Comcast."
Promises of more high-definition channels are the most effective way to lure cable subscribers to satellite TV, said Martin Olausson, director of digital media strategy for Strategy Analytics, a research and consulting firm.
In addition to considering the total number of channels offered, he said, "people switching from cable to satellite often quote the number of HD channels as the main reason."
Phillip Swann, president of TvPredictions.com, a website that tracks the high-definition TV industry, said cable operators were "loath to spend money to upgrade things until they absolutely have to." In the case of Time Warner, he said, the pressure would come only if a rival like Verizon were to start offering high-definition channels in the L.A. area.
Verizon doesn't serve the city; AT&T; Inc. does, and the nation's largest phone company is installing a combination fiber-copper network for pay-TV service.
In the meantime, Swann said, discontented HDTV owners might spread the word about their unhappiness, leading to a slowdown in sales of such televisions.
"You just don't get the same positive word of mouth you would get it if you brought it home and have tons of channels," he said.
Benson, the Los Feliz resident, complained to Time Warner in a recent e-mail.
"I have become tired of browsing the same HD channels over the past few months when your competitors are adding HD channels at much faster rates," he wrote. "It hurts me to spend all the money on an HDTV and not be able to watch some of my favorite shows."
A Time Warner customer service representative called a few hours later, apologized and promised Benson he would get more high-definition channels soon. And the representative gave Benson a year's free subscription to Showtime, a premium channel. Benson was relieved to hear it was in high-definition -- but he still has fewer HD channels than his mom.