With sales of sets and consumer awareness at an all-time high, HD’s tipping point could very well be at hand. The next step is making sure there is a wealth and wide range of programming produced in high definition to stimulate, justify and satisfy those consumers who’ve shelled out their hard-earned money to welcome the technology into their homes—not to mention the cable operators who’ve allocated bandwidth and marketing muscle to showcase high definition.
Marquee brands such as TNT jumping into the hi-def pool this year will certainly help make HD content a must-have, not just a must-see. “Because of the expense, the difficulty of getting it hooked up and the limited availability of product, a lot of people haven’t been willing to spend the money,” comments Andy Heller, president of domestic distribution for TBS Inc. “But we’re seeing that change, and I believe that this will be the year that hi-def truly takes hold as a consumer proposition as opposed to a consumer electronics proposition.” As will be in evidence at NATPE’s annual confab taking place this week, a slew of other new entrants into hi-def programming are on the horizon. The Outdoor Channel, for one, is hitting the show to troll for HD titles to shore up its 24/7 HD network launching early next year, a move (along with Outdoor Life Network’s foray into HD this summer) that should help lure the millions of outdoors buffs to hi-def. Those efforts will complement other forward-looking programmers already offering their content in HD, including Discovery, ESPN and the format’s most vocal champion, HDNet owner and hi-def entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
And expect more big cable networks, including TNT HD, at the party. The growing list of networks joining Bravo, Fox Sports, INHD, broadcasters and premium programmers that offer HD fare should help make 2004 the year that television’s viewers and gatekeepers alike truly embrace HDTV. Their combined efforts and unique programming produced in HD should wow viewers with the wide range of what television has to offer—and inspire other programmers to offer their best in high definition. HD’s Artistic Soul Even in HD, looks can be deceiving. With his mobile phone and attaché case, Clint Stinchcomb appears to be a businessman. Yet the SVP/GM of Discovery HD Theater also is an artist, searching for breathtaking scenes that will provide the best showcase for HD, prompting entire families, not just sports junkies, to go HD. “You can bet the ranch that the world will transition to HD,” he says. “Only the timetable is debatable.” Certainly he’s got a large palette, with many of Discovery’s 13 networks now shooting parts of their schedules in HD. There’s also the five-year, $65 million Atlas HD project, which essentially will be a worldwide travel brochure in HD. The “brochure” will come in the form of 30 two-hour specials that will begin toward the end of this year. “That will really showcase HD,” he promises “and it could be a breakout, like The Sopranos was for HBO.” Yet he’s constantly on the lookout for scenes rich in color and texture. Excellent feedback from HD Theater’s live presentation of the first total solar eclipse ever seen by humans in Antarctica last November has prompted Stinchcomb to compose an HD wish list of live events: outdoor concerts from Wolf Trap Park in suburban Washington, D.C.; the presidential inauguration; and July 4 fireworks from the nation’s capital. Mention the dropping of the ball on New Year’s Eve in Times Square and Stinchcomb says, “I think we could do that in a week.” He also has the gusto of an artist who can’t wait to show his new work to his eager audience. Commenting on HD footage of a snake charmer in India, he says, “You can see every scale on the king cobra’s back.” And about Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week this summer: “Just wait till you see a severed leg in HD.” Sounds like high-definitely must-see TV. The Hi-Def Strategist Statistics are important to ESPN HD chief Bryan Burns, whether he’s discussing sports trivia or business. So he chooses carefully among the bevy of numbers he could use to illustrate that ESPN HD had a successful ’03—and why he can’t wait for ’04. Burns, ESPN’s VP of strategic business planning and development, could point out how ESPN promised to carry 100 events in HD last year, but in fact ended up running 145, plus the hit drama series Playmakers. Or that ESPN HD is the only 24-hour HD sports service. Or how its Bristol, Conn., headquarters is nearing completion on its digital center which, with luck, will allow viewers to see roughly half of ESPN’s programming day in HD by late spring. But the former Major League Baseball official instead chooses to throw a curveball. The best indicator of HD’s success in general and ESPN HD’s in particular, Burns says, is that nine different companies are using ESPN HD programming to sell their HD products, bolstering his belief that sports and HD “is a match made in heaven.” And that ESPN HD’s early entrance on March 30, 2003, was timed perfectly. Still, good things come with a price. ESPN HD’s digital transition will require an enormous amount of training. After a SportsCenter taping, for instance, the crew may have to walk over to the digital studio and do a test-run of the show in HD, just for training’s sake. And once it goes HD, what will ESPN do about the 250 hours of outside tape that its highlight shows use each week, particularly if that tape isn’t shot in HD or is shot in 1080i HD format (ESPN uses the 720p format)?
“We’ll figure that out,” Burns says. Meanwhile, he’s got another stat for us: Once the digital studio is completed in the spring, there will be only 35 tape machines in the building. “We’ll be almost tapeless… it’ll be like doing your work without computers.” The HD Showman Mark Cuban bristles at the suggestion that his HDNet is an interim high-definition network that will overtaken by bigger networks once they decide to make the switch to HD. He gets even testier at the notion that his network is better known for its Hogan’s Heroes reruns and bikini-filled travelogues than anything else. “There’s a misconception that we’re a low-end network that throws out pretty pictures,” he says. “The way we start now will not be the way we finish.” Cuban prefers to compare his network to the early days of HBO and ESPN, when those nets’ programming was widely ridiculed. Programming such as Hogan’s Heroes found a place on HDNet’s schedule at first because there wasn’t enough HD content available for a 24/7 net—and the series was shot in 35mm. “From that beginning, we made more of a commitment to original HD content,” he says. “We’re going to continue to invest in those. We don’t have to worry about ratings.” He’s quick to point out his net’s original programming includes Across America, World Report (it sent HD cameras and former CNN correspondent Peter Arnett to cover conflicts in Iraq and Liberia) and a series of Sunday night concerts. HDNet has rights to HD’s holy grail, professional sports; it airs National Hockey League and Major League Soccer games. And its new film unit is producing up to seven indie features a year in HD for under $1 million each. HDNet has been signing carriage deals with some of the biggest MSOs, including last month’s deal with Time Warner Cable, which is an investor in HDNet competitor InDemand (which launched its own HD nets last year). It also has deals with Charter, Insight, RCN, the NCTC and both major satellite providers. Cuban says he’s not concerned about losing market share and carriage space to bigger nets once they make the switch to HD. For the most part, MSOs aren’t paying extra for HD channels, arguing that they won’t pay twice for the same content. And the cost for upconverting content to HD is too prohibitive for even the biggest nets. “There are questions about whether they would even have the rights in an HD world,” Cuban says. “Content shot on tape is worthless in an HD world.” HD’s Ratings Winner? TNT, which last year swept adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 to top cable’s ratings, would seem a no-brainer to extend its clout with viewers to high-definition programming—and it’s doing just that by launching TNT HD in May. With the network’s coverage of the NBA, its originals, franchises such as Law & Order plus more shot-in-HD programming on the horizon, Turner Entertainment Group president Mark Lazarus promises that “TNT HD means more than just hi-def. It means high drama.” Tapping TNT for its first HD network will bring viewers the broadest range of dramatic programming in hi-def so far. It’s also launching during TNT’s coverage of the NBA Western Conference finals (it will once again offer the NBA All-Star Game in HD, as it first did last February), and as Heller points out, hi-def isn’t just great pictures but great audio as well. “When you watch basketball in hi-def you hear the sneakers squeaking,” he says. At launch, TNT HD will offer a mix of converted and produced-in-HD programming. “We’re going to try to upconvert anything that we don’t do ourselves in hi-def,” says Heller. “The goal is to make as much of the network either real HD or as upconverted as we possibly can. “Some of our movie product is easy to convert,” he adds, “and some of our series [such as The Grid, its upcoming summer series starring Dylan McDermott and Julianna Margulies] are shooting in hi-def. We will do the NBA playoffs in HD and we’ll try to figure out how to do golf, although that decision has not been made yet. Golf is an impressive product in hi-def, but you need a lot of cameras to do it right, same problem with NASCAR. We’re in partnership with NBC on NASCAR, so we’d love to find a way to do some of that product in hi-def in a way that’s really special.” With its broadcast facilities ready and its marquee brand launching in hi-def, it’s fair to assume that this won’t be Turner’s only foray into HD. “Hi-def is a sufficient enough priority for us that we’re taking our premiere network and doing a hi-def offering,” says Heller. “That said, we are taking a bet, and if it turns out that the consumer doesn’t care or that we don’t see the kind of growth in the television sales and people signing up for hi-def service and not churning out, we’ll revisit our own beliefs. But we think this is real and that it’s time to play…we’ve spent a fair amount of money to be able to upgrade our plant and our facilities to be able to do this.” HD’s Outdoorsmen Discovery has nature programming in HD while viewers can watch sports in hi-def on ESPN HD, HDNet, INHD or Fox Sports. And for hi-def coverage of outdoor sports, viewers can now add two more networks to that list. Outdoor Life Network’s first foray into hi-def is an exclusive behind-the-scenes series looking at the Tour de France and could run on
pay-per-view or an HD network like INHD. The ’04: The Lance Armstrong Story series starts April 29 with pre-tour prep and crosses the finish line of the Tour de France in July, tracking Armstrong’s attempt at a potential record-breaking sixth tour title and the U.S. Postal Service pro cycling team on and off the race course. The Outdoor Channel is also now shooting in high definition for its planned 24/7 stand-alone HD network launching in early 2005. Having purchased Sony’s HD cameras and studio recorders late last year, the network just signed former San Diego Padre and Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Randy Jones to host a new freshwater fishing show for the service that will launch in early 2005. Randy Jones’ Strike Zone will feature Jones and a variety of athletes and celebrities kicking back in California’s lakes and rivers. Jones will also host for the network several shows on his other passion, bird hunting. Offering its brand of programming in hi-def is certain to lure America’s 60 million anglers and hunters, says Outdoor Channel president Andy Dale. “We’re taking a leap into 1080i, which we think is going to be the gold standard for hi-def,” says Dale. “We are making a full transition to HD on our production side because a year or two from now, this will be looked at in the same way as the transition from black-and-white to color. Just go to any Best Buy or Circuit City now and you’ll see HD sets flying out the door. So we’re aggressively producing our own content in HD this year and we’re also going to NATPE for the first time [this week] to see what’s out there in terms of existing HD programming in our genre. We’re beating the bushes to bring viewers not only our best programming produced in hi-def but other outstanding programming in HD. We’re not sure what’s out there, but it’s exciting.” As with Turner, the network’s investment is in line with the network’s growth and expansion plans. “Since we were aggressively upgrading anyway, it made sense to make over our production facilities with an eye to HD,” notes Dale. “To be competitive we need to do this, and we’ve been hearing from the MSOs that they’re not
too interested in another standard-definition channel, customers want it and there’s a bit of a land rush going on in cable. There will be a finite amount of capacity for HD channels, so if we price our product right and make the deal attractive, it will be a win-win all around.”

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