Discovery Devises HD Net Showcase

Jan 2, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Discovery Networks plans to introduce a pioneering new programming strategy in March designed to road-test the potential of its high-definition network Discovery HD Theater as a distribution platform for early premieres of shows on other Discovery-owned networks.

The new plan kicks off the week of March 25, when Discovery HD Theater will televise “Must Do’s: The Jeremy Piven Project” a week before the special debuts on Discovery’s Travel Channel.

Discovery will implement this new approach-which it is referring to internally as “HD First”-as it rebrands Travel Channel in early April. Discovery executives said they intend to extend the strategy to other Discovery networks, such as Animal Planet and Discovery Channel, over time.

Patrick Younge, general manager and executive VP for both Travel Channel and Discovery HD Theater, devised the plan to raise the visibility of Discovery HD Theater and as a means to tout Travel Channel.

“The Piven show will be one of the central planks of that relaunch to get the buzz going,” said Mr. Younge, who started overseeing both channels in October. He has been in charge of Travel Channel since April.

The two-part special follows actor Jeremy Piven as he travels in India. When the show runs on Travel Channel it will appear in standard definition.

“We can use HD to get shows to our passionate Discovery HD Theater audience and talk about this great show coming up in the next seven days … People are passionate in terms of HD. We think that medium should be rewarded,” he said.

The HD First initiative is believed to mark the first time a network has premiered a show on its sister HD network in advance of its traditional standard-definition premiere.

NBC Universal’s HD network, which draws content from NBC’s cable and broadcast networks, has run “Battlestar Galactica” episodes within a few weeks of their original showing on the Sci Fi Channel, but never at the same time. However, the NBCU network has run many sporting events live in HD and SD, as have ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD and broadcast networks.

Next Sneak-Peek Platform

Over the last year, many broadcast and cable networks, such as Nickelodeon, The WB and HBO, have used video-on-demand and broadband as platforms for sneak peeks of programs. The new Discovery approach suggests that HD could be the next medium for networks to showcase their content in advance.

The Discovery strategy will continue into April with “Yellowstone: America’s First National Park,” which will debut on Discovery HD Theater the week of April 10 and on Travel Channel the week of April 17.

If successful, Mr. Younge said, he’ll broaden the early premiere concept to other Travel Channel specials and series and to programs on the other Discovery Networks. He’s begun talking to the general managers of sister networks about programming fare that may benefit from an early HD debut.

“We will start it for specials and then maybe do one series, and I will probably take a look after those two,” he said.

Measuring success will be imprecise since Discovery HD Theater is not yet rated. But HD fans are a loyal and often vocal bunch, and the network will monitor feedback on bulletin boards and its Web site and in chat rooms, e-mails and phone calls from viewers and feedback from affiliates.

The Travel Channel strategy benefits both Discovery HD Theater and Travel Channel, said Richard Doherty, research director for the Envisioneering Group, a technology market research firm. The strategy increases the value of the HD network. The eye-catching nature of HD content may entice Discovery HD Theater viewers to sample additional Travel Channel content, thereby driving new viewers to Travel Channel, he said.

Mark Cuban, who runs HD-only networks HDNet and HDNet Movies and is one of the industry’s HD evangelists, also believes the HD First strategy is a smart one. “They get the opportunity, if the programming is good, to get in front of a new audience,” he said.

However, he added, “The risk they face is that the audience will assign a lower value to the SD programming. Once you watch a show in HD, no one wants to watch the same show in SD.” Todd Chanko, an analyst with Jupiter Research, echoed Mr. Cuban’s caution. He concurred that an early HD premiere won’t stimulate SD uptake because viewers won’t want to watch a show in SD after they have seen it in HD.

Some other analysts also are cool on the early debut strategy. “I don’t think HD has garnered a large enough audience to get an appreciable bump,” said Steve Kovsky, senior analyst for digital television with research firm Current Analysis.

Still, Mr. Younge said the chance is worth taking. “We want to remain the brand leaders [in HD] and we have to constantly innovate. There is a clear benefit for viewers who paid the premium for an HD service. There is a clear benefit for our affiliates because everything that drives HD benefits everyone,” he said.

The early premieres will be a key component of Travel Channel’s broader rebrand marketing campaign that begins in March. That will include promoting the HD First programming on Travel Channel itself, found in 80 million homes, and on Discovery’s other analog networks.