Hi-Def TV: Sports Is the Driver Behind HD Revolution

Oct 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TelevisionWeek

If you’ve never made the journey there, chances are you have never noticed the gently rolling topography of Augusta National Golf Course or heard just how loudly Notre Dame fans cheer the home team over in South Bend, Ind.

Unless you’ve been watching sports in high definition.

Enthusiasts looking to enhance their sports-watching experience are one of the largest forces driving HD television sales, a technological upgrade that industry insiders are comparing to the changeover from black-and-white to color.

The Consumer Electronics Association predicted in January that HDTVs were on track this year to outsell analog sets by 89 percent, after claiming 85 percent of the digital television market in 2005.

Meanwhile, according to a study by market research firm Parks Associates, one in three HDTV buyers expects to watch more sports after his or her purchase, and 71 percent of sports fans up their intake after getting a hi-def set.

“Sports fans are great and fanatical and crazy, and anytime you can deliver their sport in a higher quality, people go nuts,” said Marc Fein, senior VP of programming and production for Versus, which produces one regular-season NHL game a week and all postseason games in HD and makes them available to its cable and satellite distributors.

While HD’s 16:9 horizontal-to-vertical aspect ratio-as opposed to standard definition’s 4:3 screen-also lends itself to at-home movie watching and gaming, the format provides sports fans a view comparable only to catching a game live.

And sometimes, watching HDTV wins the day.

Martin Franks, executive VP of planning, policy and government relations for CBS Corp., recalled watching visitors’ reactions to the power of hi-def while sitting in his network’s suite this year at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the U.S. Open, an event CBS-the first of the Big 4 broadcast networks to roll out HD sports programming, back in 1998-has been offering in HD since 2000.

“We’ve always had an HD monitor in the suite, partly to proselytize, to show how neat it is,” Mr. Franks said. “Once again this year, there were available seats outside that weren’t being filled because people were crowded around the HDTV set inside.

“There’s one particular camera angle that looks down the doubles alley from the perspective of the person receiving the serve. … It looks like the ball is coming right out of the set and is going to nail you right between the eyes.”

Vertical and Horizontal

From a TV viewer’s perspective, tennis and golf are vertical, or north-south, sports. Their horizontal counterparts are anything that runs from side to side across the screen, like football, basketball, hockey and soccer. Baseball is a combination of both, and track sports, such as NASCAR and horse racing, provide some unique production challenges because of the sheer area that the cameras have to cover, making it more difficult to get a pristine feed back to the trucks.

Wider viewing angles and higher resolution, easily discernible to the naked eye, and 5.1 digital surround sound are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to marking the difference between broadcasting sports in high definition and standard definition. But for the fans, it’s a perfectly good place to start.

“It’s the remarkable clarity and ability to capture detail that high definition brings,” said David Neal, executive producer of NBC Sports and executive VP of NBC HD Olympics. “If you look at any sporting venue, all the factors are there. You’ve got speed, you’ve got motion, you’ve got colors.

“It’s an undeniable fact that sports are tailor-made for high definition.”

NBC, in the process of digitally upgrading its studios, airs “Sunday Night Football,” Notre Dame football games, hockey, NASCAR, golf and the first two legs of horse racing’s Triple Crown in HD.

The launch of “Sunday Night Football” this year sharpened the spotlight on NBC’s HD compression and bandwidth capabilities, leading emotionally and financially invested viewers to message boards such as the AVS Forum to share observations.

While complaints range from the highlights getting macroblocked (in which the screen breaks into pixilated squares) in New York to the action intermittently freezing over in Philadelphia, the technical difficulties rarely originate at field level. Instead, problems tend to occur somewhere along the way, once a signal has left the production truck and made its way to regional affiliates and cable and satellite companies.

“Quality control is almost downright impossible,” said Ken Aagaard, senior VP of operations for CBS Sports. He and his colleagues use the AVS Forum to keep track of who’s seeing what, and where.

“That happens a lot more than you would think, with audio and video problems,” Mr. Aagaard said. “Audio can get reconfigured 17 different ways. It’s really been like calling my friends with 5.1 [digital surround sound] receivers and asking, `What’s it sound like?”‘

Despite the trial-and-error aspect that’s still very much a part of broadcasting in HD, quality control in 2006 is a world away from where it was in 1998, when CBS aired four NFL games-total-in HD.

Borrowing mobile units from Madison Square Garden, where Cablevision was experimenting with shooting NHL games in HD, CBS did four side-by-side broadcasts, meaning there were two sets of trucks, cameras, announcers and other equipment to produce two telecasts. At the time it was impossible to originate an SD feed out of an HD truck.

“Part of the problem in the early years was that sports fans in particular are used to a certain production standard,” Mr. Franks said. “If you were a regular football fan and you watched the early NFL HD broadcasts that we did, there was no first-down line.”

There weren’t any HD graphics either, or super slow motion, sky cams, robotic point-of-view or reliable wireless cameras, the last of which was a problem in particular for shooting golf in HD.

CBS was able to upgrade from having two of everything-“the Noah’s Ark of broadcasting,” Mr. Frank called it-in 2002.

“Getting the unified truck, which of course brings incremental cost down, has made all the difference in the world,” he said. Now the games that are shot in HD are downconverted into the SD format, the standard procedure for networks producing HD programming for distribution in both HD and SD.

For 2006-07, CBS is scheduled to air three NFL games in HD each Sunday (out of a total of five to eight regular-season games each week); all of the NFL postseason; 95 percent of its NCAA basketball, including all March Madness games; and all of its golf, starting in January with the Buick Invitational in San Diego, for which National Mobile Television is building CBS a brand-new HD truck and Broadcast Sports Inc. is hooking up the network with the requisite wireless cameras.

Mr. Aagaard said CBS will bump its Sunday HD NFL telecasts to four in fall 2007 and hopes to televise all NFL games in HD starting in 2008. While in 1998 it was the overall lack of available equipment and HD-ready viewers in the marketplace holding back the move to HD, now it’s CBS’s broadcasting center-“antiquated, to say the least,” Mr. Aagaard said-that’s slowing the process.

“We were first in so many sports HD broadcasts that we got a little locked into some early-and now it turns out to not be optimal-architecture,” Mr. Franks said. “We just now have to go out and replace some stuff that was fairly expensive and hard to do once.”

That being said, however, CBS is proud of the pioneering position it took in the industry at a time when HD programming was a boutique offering. In a world of 200 digital cable channels, HD offerings were one of the few new ways that networks could distinguish themselves.

“Now HD gives us the opportunity to marry up either our premium events, if you think of sports, or our premium storytelling,” Mr. Franks said. “We’re back to being that specially differentiated programming that some of us grew up with.

“We still have room for improvement and we will get there. … We would really
love to be-not just altruistically and not just because we know it would please our audience, but we also happen to know it would be good business-if we could have a 52-weekend-a-year HD sports business. At the moment we’re probably close to 40 weekends, and we’ve just got a little bit more to go.”

When ESPN got into the game, announcing its plans to go HD in 2002, the network was building a new production facility in Bristol, Conn., and facing a technical decision that would have long-lasting business implications.

“We looked at each other and said, `Hey, wait a minute,”‘ said Bryan Burns, VP of strategic business planning and development for ESPN. “`If we build this for digital standard definition, what happens in the 25-year life of that building when our country eventually goes HD?”‘

So ESPN kicked off a new era, launching ESPN HD on March 30, 2003, and opening a 120,000-square-foot digital production center-the largest such center, boasting three HD studios-in the summer of 2004. The network promised it would offer 100 live events a year in HD.

At the time ESPN had three mobile HD trucks-two of its own and one belonging to ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” which started airing in HD during the 2003-04 NFL season. ABC (which now produces sporting events under the label “ESPN on ABC”) presented the Super Bowl, NHL Stanley Cup games and NBA Finals games in HD for the first time in 2003.

“What’s happening today, three years later, competitive pressures and demands from both affiliate customers and their customers-our fans-people who have this stuff just can’t get enough,” Mr. Burns said.

Consumers got their first glimpse of ESPN2 HD at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2005. This year the two networks combined will offer more than 700 events and 2,000 programs in HD, totaling more than 6,500 hours. ESPN HD and ESPN2 HD televise whatever is on the SD networks’ schedules, so they are not yet 24/7 HD networks like HDNet or iNHD, both of which offer some sporting events.

While ESPN’s 2007 schedule is still being hammered out, Mr. Burns confirmed that the network’s entire NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch Series schedules will be shot in HD in the coming year, in addition to Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL and NHL games (ESPN is the only network that has contracts with all four leagues); men’s and women’s NCAA basketball; National Hot Rod Association events; the NCAA hockey championships; and the network’s trademark original programming-the ESPY Awards, “SportsCenter,” “Baseball Tonight,” “NFL PrimeTime” and other shows shot in-studio .

Fox has made a similar commitment to a future in which HD is the norm. In 2004 the amount of HD sports programming on broadcast TV nearly doubled when Fox jumped in. The network revamped its production facility, acquired six new HD digital mobile production trucks and aired six NFL games in HD each Sunday from the start.

As of 2006, all of Fox’s postseason baseball and football, its entire NASCAR schedule and 90 percent of its regular-season NFL offerings are being shot in HD. Come the 2007 MLB season, Fox Sports will shoot seven or eight games a day in HD for its regional coverage.

“High definition is not enough,” said Andrew Setos, president of engineering for Fox Entertainment Group. “You need all the things that you had, plus high definition.”