HDTV Marketing: ESPN Goes Wide in Pigskin Push

Jul 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

July 18, 2006 CORRECTION: Upon further consideration, ESPN has decided not to letterbox its Thursday night college football games, citing “production difficulties” in making the transition.

ESPN is preparing to boost its hi-def football effort in the fall, and it’s adding a standard-definition variation on the theme. The network will showcase all college and professional football games in hi-def, and will use letterboxing-typically a high-definition technique in entertainment programming-in its Thursday night college football games for viewers with standard-def sets.

It will mark the first time a sporting event has been letterboxed, ESPN said.

The initiative is designed to give ESPN’s standard-definition viewers a peek into the hi-def world. Starting with college football on Thursdays, ESPN will letterbox the games for standard-definition viewers. Though they won’t see the full resolution HD affords, that approach will allow them to ogle the full width an HD picture affords. They’ll be able to get the feel for HD without buying a new set, said Bryan Burns, ESPN’s VP for strategic business planning and development. “It won’t be in HD but [crews] will shoot wide, just to give the public a taste,” he said.

ESPN is planning a marketing campaign behind the football letterboxing, but has not solidified the details yet. “Letterboxing `Thursday Night Football’ is the next phase of our comprehensive plan for HD. We know someday that every screen will be 16-by-9, but we are not going to wait,” Mr. Burns said.

The letterboxing is one component of ESPN’s football commitment this fall. In addition to its coup in snagging “Monday Night Football,” the sports broadcaster will present its entire professional and college football lineup in hi-def on both ESPNHD and ESPN2HD for the first time. That includes 157 football games in HD, up from 105 last year. That increase in output has helped lure advertisers; ESPN should have five hi-def advertisers on the two networks, up from two in 2004, Mr. Burns said. The networks boast a solid footprint for those advertisers; ESPN HD is available in 84 million homes and ESPN2HD in 36 million.

The letterbox strategy kicks off Aug. 31, when South Carolina and Mississippi State face off. It will run for 13 games, through Nov. 30.

Since ESPN launched its first hi-def channel in 2003, the network has used what’s known as “center cut protection.” That’s akin to placing a piece of tape over the side edges of the camera lens to “protect” the picture for standard definition, Mr. Burns said. That production technique allows a network to ensure it’s capturing the critical elements of a game in the center of a frame that can be viewed in standard definition a well as hi-def. When the game is viewed in hi-def, those viewers can see an expanded view of the action that includes the images on both sides of the frame. Mr. Burns said most networks have used this technique for their HD sports coverage.

With the new Thursday night plan, the camera operators will no longer employ the center cut strategy.

Sports is one of the top reasons consumers buy hi-def sets and sign up for hi-def programming, said Tammy Timmons, senior programming manager at EchoStar. “Watching football in HD is a whole different experience,” she said.