Hi-Def TV Content Ready to Blossom

Feb 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Lobster fishermen on an early morning in Maine, competitive meatball eaters and late-night comedians are among the new high-definition visuals that will grace HD television screens this year.

While HD programming is by no means mainstream yet, most of the 20-plus national cable and broadcast networks that offer some or all of their fare in HD are broadening their slates with new series and specials planned for 2005. The expansion comes on the heels of a Super Bowl earlier this month that featured about 17 ads in HD, up from a mere handful the year before, perhaps a sign that the HD future is arriving.

HD networks aren’t rated yet, and broadcast networks aren’t able to break out the viewership for their HD simulcasts. In the absence of such hard data, networks rely on focus groups, surveys and the old-fashioned method of monitoring anecdotal feedback to get a read on what viewers want.

“There is a growing and most insatiable appetite for this,” said Bryan Burns, VP of strategic planning and development at ESPN. “Viewer calls and mail has a consistent theme-more, more, more.”

Cable’s HD networks plan to answer that call, and many broadcasters are also upping their output this year.

A Temblor of Change

NBC Universal’s HD network, rechristened Universal HD late last year, is undergoing the most seismic changes. The network will carry more than 700 hours of unique programming in HD this year, up from about 150 last year, when it was still known as Bravo HD.

In the old incarnation, the network hadn’t gained much traction in the distribution department and in fact still lacks deals with leading multiple system operators Comcast and Time Warner Cable. But that should soon change, said Mark Kersey, an industry analyst who runs the Web site BuyingHDTV.com.

“It seems like the operators are waiting for the NBC Universal people to get it all hammered out before they sign on the dotted line,” he said.

That hammering is just about done. With NBC’s acquisition of Universal last summer came a new strategy for the HD network to include more HD content from NBC Universal’s new cable networks. “There was just a tremendous desire on the part of the industry to do even more and even better programming, and we heard that message,” said Ron Lamprecht, VP of new media at NBC Universal.

On-air now is cinematic fare such as “Apollo 13” as well as the NBC show “Law & Order: SVU.” Episodes of Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” and USA Network’s “Monk” and movies including “Backdraft” and “Meet the Parents” should come aboard in HD in the next few months.

On the broadcast side, NBC is moving its late-night shows into the land of HD this year, and plans to flip the switch on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in April, with “Saturday Night Live” and “Last Call With Carson Daly” to follow in October. “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” has been in HD since 1999. Additionally, NBC will simulcast all of its 2006 Winter Olympics coverage in HD. That’s a change from the Athens Games last summer, when it offered HD coverage but the HD content wasn’t simulcast. “We believe that high definition is really the killer app,” said John Wallace, executive VP of television operations and production services for NBC.

Getting a Longer Look

Cable’s HD pioneer Discovery HD Theater plans a second-quarter launch of a new HD show, “Risk Takers,” that will profile firefighters, alligator trappers, hurricane researchers and others in similar careers. In the third quarter, the network will introduce 15 new episodes of its signature series “An Inside Look,” including the lobster fishermen episode, as well as shows about castles, lumberjacks and elite military security teams.

The network has learned that longer shots work well for the rich imagery that is HD content. In the new crop of shows, viewers can expect to see shots held for much longer than the traditional two or three seconds, said Clint Stinchcomb, senior VP and general manager for Discovery HD Theater and VOD.

Sports, UFOs, Gorgers

Meanwhile, ABC was slated to carry in HD last week’s Peter Jennings news special on UFOs, a sign that the network will offer more news content in HD. ABC carried the presidential inauguration last month in HD.

CBS said it plans to carry 39 games from the NCAA Basketball Tournament in HD next month, up from 12 last year.

Also on the sports front, ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD plan to offer 71 HD events between them in March and April, including several men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments as well as some Major League Baseball games.

NBA TV announced last week that it will originate in HD this fall out of Turner Broadcasting’s production facilities in Atlanta.

Also, iN Demand’s 24-hour HD networks INHD and INHD2 are hosting a series of producer showcases in New York in March to introduce producers to the dynamics of working in HD. Producers must have submitted proposals or treatments and must be invited to attend. In addition, the two networks will introduce at least six new original series this year, including the premiere next month of a show produced in partnership with men’s magazine FHM that goes behind the scenes on the publication’s model shoots.

The networks will also offer new episodes of the “Tour de Gorge,” iN Demand’s coverage of competitive eating contests in which participants eat as many hot dogs, meatballs, soft tacos or other food items as they can during a specified time limit.

Earlier this month, HDNet premiered “Art Mann Presents,” a variety show hosted by the former host of E!’s “Wild On.”