An HDTV Report Card

Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

High-definition TV sets are now in approximately 7 million homes. However, only 12 networks have taken the plunge and launched HD channels. As I’ve written before, HDTV sales will not dramatically improve until we see more programming.
Of the existing HDTV channels, which ones are worth every penny? And which ones might make you question your investment?
Professor Phil has taken out his pen and issued this report card for today’s hi-def lineup.
Head of the Class
Mark Cuban’s all-HDTV network, which broadcasts in the 1080i format, the industry’s highest standard, is a showcase for the wonder of high-definition television. From Major League Soccer games to documentaries on exotic lands, HDNet will make you widen your eyes and drop your jaw. And those Hawaiian Tropic beauty contests, which feature long, tantalizing close-ups of bikini-clad femme fatales, border on soft porn. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Grade: A
Discovery HD Theater
Also displayed in 1080i, Discovery HD can make a documentary on Lewis and Clark more interesting than Martin and Lewis. The picture is crystal-clear with extraordinary detail. And the nature shows are just amazing. You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a close-up of an American eagle on a big-screen HDTV. Just ask my cat. She was so fooled by the realistic picture that she tried to jump up and catch the bird as it flew away on-screen. Grade: A
The Tiffany Network is the crown jewel of the majors. CBS airs most of its prime-time lineup in 1080i, as well as the daytime soap “The Young and the Restless.” And as an NFL fan, thank God for CBS. Unlike Fox, which does not broadcast anything in HDTV, CBS shows at least one NFL game a week in 1080i hi-def. Grade: B+
In most major cities, PBS airs two HDTV channels; one is a simulcast of the regular PBS lineup while the other displays previously aired programming. When in doubt, you can always find something interesting in HD on PBS. Grade: B+
HDNet Movies
Mr. Cuban’s other HDTV channel offers a mix of old and new. The lineup includes recent titles, such as “The Astronaut’s Wife,” and old standbys, such as “McQ,” starring John Wayne. It’s a fun channel, although watching the 75-year-old, toupee-wearing Wayne in 1080i may not be suitable for dinnertime. Grade: B+
Showing Improvement
ABC airs all of its HDTV programming in 720p, the second-highest-resolution format. Consequently, prime-time shows, which are taped, just don’t have the pop of a 1080i broadcast. However, ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” which began airing in hi-def this season, has looked gorgeous so far. Grade: B
The Peacock Network could show its colors more often. NBC airs about 15 shows in 1080i, including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” However, the network recently decided not to show Wimbledon in HDTV. It seems that NBC’s HD commitment is still a little shaky. Grade: B
The WB
The network of teens and tweens recently doubled its 1080i lineup to 11.5 hours a week. It was a brave move by The WB. I’m not sure the “Gilmore Girls” audience is likely to run out and buy a hi-def set. Grade: B
Showtime HD
Showtime airs a simulcast HD channel, which features dozens of movies every month in hi-def. Plus, from “Street Time” to “Dead Like Me,” the network has demonstrated a commitment to produce its original programming in HD. Grade: B
The premium channel also airs a simulcast HD channel. The rebroadcasts of theatrical films are great in HD. But the network seems uninterested in producing its own shows in hi-def. “The Sopranos” is in HD, but not “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Sex and the City.” Grade: C+
The hi-def sports network just launched, and like most rookies it needs a lot of work. ESPN is broadcasting just one or two games a week in hi-def. Plus, the network is using the 720p format; the picture is not exactly eye-popping. However, ESPN acknowledges that there’s room for improvement. The network is planning to build a new HD production center so it can expand its HD lineup, including “SportsCenter.” Grade: C
Bravo HD
The new kid on the block, Bravo HD, launched July 31. However, at press time, the channel was not available on either cable or satellite.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.