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Nets Grapple With Hi-Def Formats

Feb 13, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The HD revolution is a rush of the sort not seen since the advent of color television.

Though the current HD universe contains only 6 million viewers, that number is expected to grow rapidly and networks cannot afford to be left behind.

The fate of the networks hinges on a key question their architects are all grappling with: What HD channel format will give them the best return in an uncertain future?

Unlike standard-definition channels, there’s no established blueprint for how to program an HD channel. So companies have taken wildly different approaches to establish their brands in the HD marketplace.

Just last month two new HD spinoffs of popular cable brands debuted-MTV Networks’ MHD and National Geographic Channel’s NGC-HD.

With the new launches, there’s an increasing sense of bona fide competition among fledging HD offspring. Discovery HD Theater is no longer the only resource for gorgeous nature programming now that there’s NGC-HD. ESPN gets heat from Fox Sports Net’s regional HD offerings. Stand-alones like HDNet, INHD and Universal HD compete for the uncut second-run theatrical market.

“We’re now in a transition period,” said Bryan Burns, VP of strategic business planning and development for ESPN. “At what point do we take a deep breath and say the HD tide has turned? Do we turn the other network off? There’s a lot of things to figure out, but that’s where we going. We’re re-creating the way television is being viewed in this country.”

The rapidly growing HD demographic is spearheaded by early-adopting males with disposable income-perfect for attracting advertisers. Yet channels face significant start-up costs to produce HD programming and launch auxiliary networks.

Turner, Nat Geo, ESPN, HBO and others decided to have simulcast versions of their most popular channels-a format experts say eventually will dominate among HD networks.

Discovery Networks, NBC Universal and MTV Networks, on the other hand, decided to launch uniquely programmed stand-alone networks to pack the channel with more native HD content and, in some cases, serve as bandwidth “placeholders” until a flagship channel has enough HD shows to support a simulcast.

Some channels use 1080i resolution, some use 720p. Some feature original programming, some do not. Some have wall-to-wall native HD content, some fluctuate between HD and standard-definition programming that’s been upconverted to high definition-even though it often results in black bars appearing on television screens similar to letterbox brackets.

Such wildly varying standards have resulted in several HD networks adopting a more-HD-than-thou stance.

“The [stand-alone] placeholder channels that repeat the same programming over and over or use upconverted programming are certainly disappointing for viewers but sure do make HDNet and HDNet Movies look good,” said HDNet co-founder and President Mark Cuban. “We have seen one of our competitors repeat the same show 57 times, and others go full days with only upconverted programming.”

Discovery HD Theater, which broadcasts a collection of scenic content, boasts original programming shot exclusively in the highest-quality format.

“We’re recognized within the industry as HD pioneers,” said Patrick Younge, executive VP and general manager of Discovery HD Theater and Travel Channel. “These people are paying for HD content, so they should get exclusive content. We’re the only network broadcasting 1080i HD for 24/7.”Early on HD cable adoption was driven by premium networks. In 1999 and 2000, HBO and Showtime, respectively, launched two of the first hi-def feeds. “Premium subscribers tend to be early adopters, so we got in the space early,” said Judy Pless, senior VP of the digital media group at Showtime.

At the time, new channels were driven solely by consumer demand. As more channels emerged, cable and satellite operators began bundling HD services for an additional charge, leading operators to push companies to provide HD content to make their packages more attractive.

This led to the current simulcast-versus-stand-alone de-bate. Become a simulcast and it keeps the new HD brand easy to schedule, but chances are there will be very little actual HD content, since most cable nets have very few current shows shot in HD.

Launch as a separately programmed stand-alone, and the channel can enjoy HD content from a dozen sources-but then risk causing brand confusion in the marketplace.

“The catchall is a very challenging model when you’re already a known brand, since it goes against what consumers expect and can create problems,” said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Re-search Group. “If you’re TNT HD at 8 p.m., the consumer has an expectation of what they’re going to see. The natural migration to the HD channel is to have the same programming.”

For the newly launched MHD, MTV Networks elected to launch a stand-alone to take advantage of music content from MTV, VH1 and CMT. To give the networks a sense of identity, the channel established a studio in Vail, Colo., with an HD-worthy picturesque view.

“It was a tough decision. We’re a brand that’s very targeted,” said Jeffrey Yapp, executive VP of MTV Networks Music Group. “So this is really about the best in music -particularly live performance natively shot in HD.”

An odd entry in the HD market is Universal HD. The channel was launched as Bravo HD in 2004. But with no Bravo series actually shot in high definition, NBC Universal changed the network’s name to Universal HD by year’s end.

“Originally, we launched it to help to get our share of the HD space as a placeholder and as a marketing tool to help get Bravo launched in more homes,” said Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment. “Then when we merged with Universal we realized they had a wealth of more content to offer.”

Today the network has a compilation of upconverted Universal titles such as “Knight Rider” and “The Equalizer,” alongside two entries from the NBCU cable networks group-Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” and USA’s “Monk.”

ESPN has a quirky launch story. Though sports is now recognized as the biggest driver of high definition, the decision to launch ESPN was literally based on a more concrete situation-the construction of a new digital studio.

“We were preparing to build a studio and we realized if we built it in SD we’re just going to have to tear the guts out in a few years and do it again in HD,” Mr. Burns said.

Looking forward, experts expect cable networks to continue to fall in line until every major network has an HD twin.

“There’s going to be a bit of a scramble from those who have not got in the game to get into the game,” Mr. Burns said. “If you’re in cable, and you’ve gone within 100 miles of a Circuit City store in the past year, you have to be thinking about it.”