High-definition TV is finally coming into its own. Set prices are plummeting, operators are aggressively rolling out HD capability and the amount of HD programming has grown during the past year at most of the broadcast, premium and sports networks-the content providers that have been leading the HD evolution.
ESPN, Starz Encore, Showtime and ABC have either launched or increased their HD offerings in the past year and CBS and HBO have maintained their pace, having led the pack in the amount of HD content for a few years.
CBS carries its entire prime-time lineup of scripted dramas, comedies and movies in HD, but not reality or news-about the same as last year. CBS broadcasts, on average, 25 hours per week of HD programming, including prime time, sports and “The Young and the Restless.”
Like CBS, ABC also carries scripted comedies, dramas and movies in HD, but not reality programming or news. The biggest change this year is the return of “Monday Night Football” in HD after an initial test in 2000-01. The new addition will increase ABC’s total HD content to about 700 hours for the coming season, up from 620 last season, said Preston Davis, president of broadcast operations and engineering for ABC.
NBC plans this fall to offer most of its scripted shows in HD, with the exception of “Friends,” “Scrubs,” “Will & Grace,” “Fear Factor” and “Dateline.” The network added “West Wing” in HD during the past year and plans to begin offering “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “Good Morning, Miami” in HD.
Fox has carried two-thirds of its prime-time lineup as well as NFL games and “Fox News Sunday” in what it calls enhanced definition. That amount won’t change in the coming season, but in 2004 the network will carry half of its prime-time lineup in true HD for the first time.
The price of HD sets will likely hit the below-$1,000 “sweet spot” by Christmas, a crucial tipping point for the industry, said Mark Greenberg, Showtime’s executive VP of corporate strategy and communications. “The price has to burn through early adopters who will pay anything,” he said.
With HD programming reaching critical mass and set prices falling, the remaining hurdle to HD is accessibility, Mr. Davis said. “Cable carriage of HD is probably the single biggest obstacle to much broader adoption,” he said. “I know much larger cable MSOs have obligated themselves to offering it. If that happens, I think it will be the single biggest event to continue to drive the adoption of HD.”
Cablers are doing their part. Comcast now offers HD in 23 markets. At the end of the first quarter, the service was available to 9 million of its 21 million homes, or 42 percent of the operator’s footprint. By the end of the year, Comcast will reach 65 percent of its customers with HD.
Cablevision introduced its HD tier of HBO, Showtime, Fox Sports Net New York and MSG Network to its digital customers in March. The service is available to 3.8 million of the operator’s homes passed and will reach all 4.4 million homes passed by the end of the year. The operator will introduce an HD package of on-demand movies in August.
Time Warner Cable provides HD to 93 percent of its footprint.
Starz Encore Chairman and CEO John Sie recently reversed his resistance to HD, which he has considered a bandwidth hog. The premium provider plans to offer later this year an HD movie tier, HD and high-resolution versions of Starz and select movies in HD on Starz On Demand.
“We are in the early stages of the tidal wave for operators putting out HD packages, which is why we decided now is the right time for us to offer the HD version of our channels,” said Greg DePrez, VP of subscription VOD for Starz Encore.
Showtime has substantially upped its HD output since launching SHO HDTV in 2000, and now offers nearly 80 percent of its prime-time content in a high-resolution wide-screen format. That’s a sizable increase from last year, when on average 50 percent of the lineup was carried in HD.
HBO carries 75 percent of its programming in HD, about the same as last year at this time. About 80 percent of theatricals appear in “true” high definition on HBO HDTV.
Cinemax HDTV launches in fall 2003 with 75 percent in true high definition.
Showtime offers nearly 80 percent of its prime-time content in a high-resolution wide-screen format, of which 59 percent originated in HD. Last year, the network carried on average 50 percent of its prime-time content in HD.
Starz Encore plans to launch its first HD efforts later this year with HD and hi-res versions of Starz, a Sharper Movies HD tier, and HD titles on demand.
ESPN began its HD slate in March with a yearlong package of about 120 games and sporting events in HD. The network will add 3,000 hours, including “SportsCenter” in early 2004 when the new digital center opens.
HDNet carried several sporting events, travel shows and documentaries last summer in HD. During the past year the network has added more sports, movies and original and acquired series in HD and an additional network, HDNet Movies.
Programmers are wise to create HD channels and tiers now, since channel capacity is limited, said Bruce Leichtman, analyst with Leichtman Research Group. “If you are the 25th programmer to decide to launch HD, you may not get there,” he said. He estimates 5 million homes have HD sets today and 7 million will by the end of the year. By the end of 2007, there will be 33 million HD-capable homes, he said.