Animated Nets Race To Go HD

Feb 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

While several major cable networks have upgraded tentpole series to high definition, rival kids networks Cartoon Network and Disney Channel have quietly converted their animation production processes to HD in presumed preparation for launching HD spinoff channels.

“We have made the transition to HD and are ready to deliver in HD,” said Brian Miller, senior VP and general manager for Cartoon Network Studios. “It costs a little more, but nothing like you would encounter in live action. And the picture is unbelievable.”

Most major cable genres are now represented by a nationally distributed HD network, but not kids programming.

Of the kids networks, Turner Networks’ Cartoon appears to have the most stockpiled HD content, though Viacom-owned Nickelodeon has experience launching an HD network (dubbed MHD) and sources said Nick may be next among the Viacom HD suite.

Animation costs less to upgrade to HD than does live action but is still pricey-a half-hour of daytime animated programming costs at least $10,000 more to produce in HD, sources estimated. Even broadcast hits such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” are still produced in standard definition.

Nickelodeon is also becoming HD-ready, albeit to a lesser degree. Despite the fact that animation is less expensive to go HD, Nick is producing its live-action content in HD, but not its animation. The reason: Nick has dramatically less live-action programming than animation in its lineup, sources said.

Nick also is very interested in broadcasting in the new format, however, the sources said.

Between Cartoon and The Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Channel, one reason for the upgrade is that children’s programming is a popular cable export. Cartoon Network, for example, distributes its shows to 160 counties, and several European and Asian nations are embracing the HD format.

But domestic distribution is still a priority, and the kids networks are closely guarding their HD strategies.

Mr. Miller said Cartoon’s HD upgrade is intended for a spinoff network, but Turner executives denied they have any firm launch plans in place.

“There are no plans in place for Cartoon Network in hi-def,” said Jim Samples, executive VP and general manager of Cartoon Network. “That being said, we are doing the responsible thing, creating entertainment assets for an HD future that will eventually come. These are long-term investments in our animation library. Not doing this would not be smart.”

Adult Swim an Exception

Yet the biggest hits on Cartoon Network-the older-skewing Adult Swim block-are an exception to the HD upgrade, said Mr. Miller, suggesting distribution plans specifically for the kids content. Most networks have only HD-upgraded their most popular programs.

Also, most animated programs on broadcast networks do not yet produce in high definition, even though the broadcasters have HD feeds.

“One, there’s a basic lack of willingness on the part of the producers to do HD,” said Chris Alexander, spokesman for “Simpsons” producer 20th Century Fox Television. “Two, there’s more painting and animation for the widescreen format, which increases the cost. Three, a lot of our animation is produced overseas, and they don’t have the equipment and technology yet.”

At Disney Channel, sources described the channel’s HD plans as still in flux.

“Six months ago there were HD discussions, now our concentration is going into other areas, with iTunes and digital media discussions,” one source said.

A lingering question is how much qualitative difference presenting animation in HD will make for viewers. Since the visual impact of HD is dependent on the amount of available detail, afternoon kids animation is not likely to benefit as much from the format as, say, finely penned adult anime.

“Animation works in HD,” said Mark Cuban, co-founder and president of HDNet. “But it’s not nearly as dramatic as ‘real’ content.”

Nickelodeon currently leads Cartoon Network among ad-supported basic cable networks in delivery of kids 2 to 11 and 6 to 11, according to Nielsen Media Research. Factor in “ad-sponsored” Disney Channel, and the delivery changes to Disney leading in prime and coming in second during daytime.