Scoring points in high definition

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

High-definition sports broadcasts, often considered the ultimate digital experience, are getting a boost this fall, thanks to two networks-an old standard and a fresh upstart.
CBS and HDNet are aiming to prove the value of HDTV. CBS hopes to do that with its current coverage of Saturday college football games in both high definition and standard definition, the network’s first extended high-definition project in sports programming. Meanwhile, HDNet is an all high-definition network that launched in September with a slate of 15 Major League Baseball games and 65 National Hockey League games.
Sports is one of the leading drivers of HDTV, said Dennis Wharton, senior VP for the National Association of Broadcasters. According to an NAB survey, 62 percent of consumers would be more likely to purchase an HDTV set if they could watch their favorite sporting events, he said.
“Once you’ve seen a sports broadcast in HDTV, it’s really hard to go back,” said Jim Stroud, an analyst with the Carmel Group.
That’s what CBS is banking on. The television network has partnered with Sears and Samsung to produce a full season of college football games in HDTV. As part of the deal, Sears’ full-line stores are showcasing a game each week on a Samsung HDTV side by side with a standard-definition broadcast. Affiliates reaching 56 percent of the country can also transmit high-definition feeds, said Ken Aagaard, senior VP of operations for CBS Sports.
CBS began to dabble in high-definition sports programming in 1998, when Sony sponsored four NFL games and the network produced side-by-side broadcasts in standard and high definition with separate crews, announcers, trucks and equipment. It cost about $250,000 to produce each football game in high definition, Mr. Aagaard said. Since then, the network has broadcast the Super Bowl, the Final Four, The Masters Tournament and the U.S. Open tennis tournament in high definition. “But to make it work [long term] we needed to do [both feeds] jointly,” Mr. Aagaard said.
CBS has now moved past the side-by-side broadcasts and is able to rely on one announcing team and one crew with its college football broadcasts. The network uses an Ikegami camera that handles both high-definition and standard-definition feeds, but it still needs two trucks, since the equipment necessary to handle each broadcast is different. CBS is working with vendor Core Digital Technologies to install a high-definition switcher that will enable one truck to produce both a high-definition and a standard-definition feed. The equipment to do that may be in place in time for the coming college basketball season, Mr. Aagaard said.
Despite the attention paid to high-definition television, payoff is still small because the audiences are small. However, HD sports has been a money maker for CBS, since in all cases the network has found a sponsor to underwrite the costs. “HD has actually been profitable for us. Sales have driven our ability to do high-def,” Mr. Aagaard said. However, he noted, “High definition is not black and white going to color. This is not a wholesale transition. It’s just another of various forms of the way people will entertain themselves.”
Marc Cuban, chairman and president of HDNet and the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has a different philosophy. He believes every TV household will own an HDTV set in 10 years. That’s why he wants to be a pioneer now while the industry is still in its infancy. “We want to be at the forefront with content,” Mr. Cuban said. The network owns two high-definition trucks and sends them to the various events around the country that it produces. With the baseball and hockey games, HDNet piggybacks off the Fox Sports Net broadcasts to produce its high-definition broadcast.
The National Hockey League believes its audience will be early adopters of HDTV. NHL fans tend to be more affluent and tech-savvy, said Doug Perlman, senior VP of television and media ventures for the league. “They have the means to access this content and they are passionate,” he said. He also believes HDTV broadcasts of hockey games may attract a new audience because some people say hockey is too fast to watch on TV; the aspect ratio of high-definition makes it easier to follow the plays when you can see more of the ice, he said.
Within four to five years, about 80 percent of the sporting events carried by CBS will be available in both standard and high definition, Mr. Aagaard said. “It gives CBS a bit of an edge,” he said.
ABC aired its 1999 Monday Night Football games and that season’s Super Bowl in high definition. However, producing two different broadcasts with different setups at each stadium was complicated, an ABC spokesperson said. When ABC discontinued broadcasting the games in high definition, Seattle-based Ackerley Group purchased the high-definition truck the network had used. Ackerley used the truck this season to produce the first month of Seattle Mariners games for NHK in Japan, which has carried soccer, basketball and sumo wrestling in high definition. “You can practically see the laces in the baseball. You can see the sweat down the brow of a player,” said Kelly Alford, VP of engineering with Ackerley. Its HD truck is one of about a half-dozen HDTV-equipped trucks nationwide, he said.
Meanwhile, NBC is considering whether to carry some of the 2002 Olympic events in high definition. No plans have yet been confirmed.#