In Depth

Regional Sports Networks Join the HD Party

NBC Universal was thinking globally when it said last month that all 3,600 hours of the Beijing Olympics to be aired by its networks would be in high definition. Now, many U.S. regional networks are acting locally by taking a similar approach.

As U.S. consumers prepare for February’s switchover to digital broadcasts by ramping up HDTV sales, News Corp.’s FSN Networks, Cablevision’s MSG Network and Comcast SportsNet are among regional sports network groups that are responding by boosting their HD programming.
FSN, whose 16 regional networks have increased their annual HD broadcasts to more than 1,700 games this year from about 200 games five years ago, will start all-day HD broadcasts next year, facilitated by a new, 182,000-square-foot operations facility in Houston. The facility will allow FSN to broadcast as many as 40 HD games a night, up from the network’s limit of about a dozen now, FSN spokesman Chris Bellitti said.

Meanwhile, Comcast SportsNet said in April that the number of its HD baseball broadcasts would jump 61% from 2007, with all of the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox games airing in HD. Overall, about two-thirds of this season’s 4,400 Major League Baseball game telecasts will be broadcast in HD, up from about 40% in 2007.

Now the trend is going beyond the big three sports of baseball, basketball and football. MSG, whose 1998 HD broadcasts of New York Knicks basketball games preceded by five years the first HD broadcasts by both FSN and Walt Disney’s ESPN, will televise more than 350 live events in HD within the next 12 months. Included in the upgraded broadcasts are the WNBA’s New York Liberty and the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres, as well as about 2,000 hours of original programming.

“You have to keep pace with the technology changes,” said Mike Bair, president of MSG Media, who estimated about half of the 10 million East Coast customers who get MSG have access to HD programming. “You want to put your brand in the best possible light.”

Spurred by the looming digital transition and falling costs, North American second-quarter shipments of liquid-crystal display television sets—almost all of which are HDTVs—jumped 52% from a year earlier and accounted for 80% of the total shipments, making HDTVs more the norm among U.S. customers, and especially among sports fans. MSG said its subscribers are 41% more likely to own HDTVs than the general public.

With that kind of consumer adoption, and with free networks such as General Electric’s NBC and Fox going all HD for national sports broadcasts, regional networks either must boost their HD offerings or run the risk of appearing to fall behind by airing professional sports events in standard definition.

For News Corp., FSN’s expansion plan for HD is a chance to invest in networks that are part of a cable-network division that helped feed a 27% jump in net income for the parent company in the most recently completed quarter.

While Mr. Bellitti says it’s too early to gauge HD broadcasts’ effect on advertisers who would need to spend more to create spots for high definition, he believes subscribers have already responded by watching more games.

“Sports has been a key driver of HD for several years now,” Mr. Bellitti said. “The anecdotal evidence is that once sports fans see a telecast in HD, there’s no going back.”

“Sports viewers tend to have higher penetration of HD homes than non-sports fans,” said Mr. Bair. “When we go to advertisers, we can tell them our audience is more technologically sophisticated.”