CFAX: Will there be a time when HD will be ubiquitous on the American landscape? When there will be no more SD channels and no more SD TV sets being sold?
BB: I can see that time but it will be down the road a bit.
We have to acknowledge that the digital transition is really the HD transition, we just haven’t called it that. And there are a number of [political] reasons why it’s not been called that. It will take us a while to transition everything. And when I say “us” I mean the consuming public. Television has lasted so long a consumer electronics gear that there will still be [analog] TV sets floating around in your guest bedroom and garage. It’s going to take a while for those sets to work their way out of the system. Until that happens, all of us in television will have to keep figuring out how to keep servicing both sides of the house, so to speak.
CFAX: There’s still an education gap in that people are buying TV sets that are HD capable, but don’t realize they need to get HD service to see HD channels like yours.
BB: Yes, there is. As of yesterday roughly 21 million ESPN HD subs. We have just under 96 million ESPN SD subs. So we are running about 22% of HD subs to SD subs. There is a considerably larger number than 21 million HD sets out there. I can’t tell you for sure how many ESPN SD homes have HD sets, but I would guess that number is 40-45 million households. That leaves with you about 20 million homes with HD sets but not HD service.
That, from our perspective, is a marvelous opportunity, I don’t see it as a problem. It’s an opportunity for us and our distribution partners to upgrade customers out of basic cable service up to digital cable and on to HD service.
CFAX: When you launched ESPN HD in ’03 the amount of live sports coverage you or anyone else could do was limited by the number of HD trucks available. Is that still the case?
BB: We launched with 2.5 trucks then, with the half truck being used by ABC Sports, which used it for half the year for “Monday Night Football.” I’m told there now are about 65 trucks on the road domestically that all of us—CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, us—share. I’m told there were about 80 remote units in Beijing for the Olympics. Those will now be deployed in Europe, here and elsewhere.
So, there’s certainly not a glut of trucks, but it’s easier than it was to schedule things. That we did 87 HD events in ’03 and will do some 200 this year with ESPN U HD shows the extent of truck availability.
CFAX: Besides carrying Vanderbilt vs. Miami (OH) on Aug 28, is there a business reason to officially launch ESPNU HD now?
BB: All you have to do is watch television to know that HD carriage has become an increasingly important marketing tool for our cable, satellite and telco distributors. So it’s important for us to not only ramp up the amount of originally produced HD programming on our service but also the number of services we offer. It’s not lost on us that our ratings are 50% higher in HD homes than non-HD homes. It’s not lost on our distributors either.
CFAX: So you’re looking at HD for ESPN Classic and ESPN Deportes?
BB: Yes. With Classic many of the events were filmed in 4 by 3 and you can’t change that…[ESPN’s] International services might be the next frontier for HD.
CFAX: Last August then-ESPNU chief Burke Magnus said we’d see more high schools on the channel. Will you carry those in HD?
BB: I can’t say for sure…I think there will be a natural progression where we’ll do as many of our collegiate sports as we can in HD first.
Understand that HD requires power and better lighting and you don’t always get that at high schools. So I don’t think there will be a race to cover high school sports in HD.
CFAX: So you’ll still be producing some live events in SD?
BB: Yes, we will and we do, but it’s getting harder to produce in SD since our physical plant and that of most of our affiliates on the road have gone to HD.
But we still produce in SD. I’ll be funny here and use my alma mater. If we go on the road and do University of Central Missouri playing SW Missouri State we don’t take an HD truck there. That hasn’t made the cut. There are still a number of games like that where we can’t look in the mirror and say we’re going to roll a 53-foot truck and 17 cameras to Warrensburg, Missouri.
CFAX: When you have a spare moment, what, besides ESPN networks, do you like to watch in HD?
BB: I’ve steadfastly said from day one that from a picture-quality standpoint my favorite show in HD besides ESPN is CSI Miami on CBS.
CFAX: What sport benefits most from HD?
BB: Horizontally oriented sports as a category, like basketball, football and soccer. You can see the play develop in the aspect ratio of HD before you can see it in SD. That’s because of real estate not clarity.
[An edited version of this session appeared in CableFAX Daily, August 28, 2008.]