Though it’s tempting to merely tally subscriber numbers, when it comes to HD networks, National Geographic would prefer to focus on the bigger picture. Simply offering an HD service puts the brand in line with viewer expectations. "There’s a larger strategic value to having a robust HD service. It’s more than just eyeballs. It speaks to what kind of network you are," says John Ford, programming EVP for National Geographic Channel and mastermind of NGC HD, the simulcast HD network it spun off last January. "Given the power of the visuals of this brand, for us it’s not a question of being in HD. It’s an imperative." So it’s icing on the cake that NGC HD is on a distribution roll. The ink is drying on its first MSO deal, with Comcast, which began adding the channel in late November, and DirecTV, which will roll it out in early 2007. They join Dish Network, Verizon’s FiOS TV, AT&T’s U-verse and a gaggle of local cable operators. Ford chose a good time to launch NGC HD, despite its standard-definition sister network not yet reaching full distribution. Nat Geo is in 62 million homes at the moment. Rising sales of HDTV sets have only put more pressure on cable operators. "As more consumers purchase HDTVs, the demand for more original HD content will increase," says Eric Sahl, SVP of programming at Dish, which carries the channel on its GoldHD tier. Ford adds: If a given operator doesn’t offer consumers enough HD wow, "they’ll just get it from someone else. Over the long run consumers always opt for the best picture they can get. As people see NGC HD there’s tremendous word of mouth, and then the [cable] systems get excited and feel they need it for their customers." Excitement doesn’t always translate into carriage, however. Cable operators have struggled to stretch their taxed bandwidth capacity to accommodate HD programming. But Ford believes the commitment from Comcast will lead to more deals. He also hints that some deals are in the offing. "Many of those bandwidth concerns are getting sorted out, and HD is now coming back into view," he says, again emphasizing that consumer demand is the driving force. For cable operators, NGC HD’s sweeping documentary content tends to speak for itself. "People were asking for it all the time," says Geoff Oxnam, director of marketing for Easton Cable, which added the network in March. "When we do promos offering free HD for a month, one of our key points of marketing is the availability of National Geographic HD."