Suddenly, the Race Is on for HD Channels

Jan 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

With DirecTV’s announcement last week that several major cable networks will launch high-definition channels this year, programming executives are suddenly trying to figure out how their businesses will change.

DirecTV, the largest U.S. satellite-TV operator, said that as part of its push to add 100 new HD channels by the end of the year, USA Network, Sci Fi Channel, FX, MTV, TBS, Cartoon Network, CNN, Speed Channel and others will launch simulcast HD networks.

DirecTV’s HD initiative has become a tipping point for a host of major networks previously biding their time before taking the plunge to HD. The list of networks joining DirecTV’s HD lineup represent the largest number of channels to ever commit to HD upgrades all at once.

If DirecTV holds true to its plan, by the end of the year almost every major network will be available in the format. After years of trouncing DirecTV’s meager HD lineup, rivals EchoStar and cable operators will be forced to add considerable HD capacity to stay competitive.

The news set off a flurry of speculation among fans over which of their favorite shows would be converted to HD.

For NBC Universal’s Sci Fi Channel and USA Network, the news is a long time coming. Most of the networks’ original programming-such as “Monk,” “Psych,” “Eureka” and “Battlestar Galactica”-is already produced in HD. NBC Universal has a stand-alone HD network called Universal HD, which carries repeats of a couple of the shows, but only months after they air on their regular channels.

Sci Fi and USA President Bonnie Hammer said she’s excited to have a series like “Battlestar Galactica” finally available in HD on a Sci Fi-branded simulcast, and that USA’s top-rated “WWE: Raw” will likely switch over to the format as well.

As for future programming, Ms. Hammer and others agreed that just because they have an HD channel doesn’t mean they’ll be adding sports or travelogue eye candy to their schedules. Brand-appropriate content will still be king.

At the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour last week, FX President John Landgraf said “Nip/Tuck,” “Rescue Me” and “Dirt” will be in the format. But “The Shield,” which had an HD test last year, has such a gritty, documentary style, that the show will likely serve out its final seasons in standard definition.

Fox Cable’s Speed Channel will give HD treatment to properties such as NASCAR and Supercross, as well as prime-time lifestyle programs such as “Pinks” and “Superbikes.”

TBS will be a challenge for Turner, as the network has very little original programming. When it comes to acquired content, programmers often have to renegotiate to gain HD distribution rights. Part of the DirecTV deal mandates networks provide a certain percentage of content in native HD.

DirecTV declined to say exactly how much programming must be in the format. A DirecTV spokesman said the company expects programming partners to step up to a certain level of HD at or shortly after the launch.

Exact dates are also hazy, but at least two channels, CNN and Cartoon Network, have vowed a September debut.

DirecTV is launching two HD satellites and wants 100 HD channels by the end of the year to become more competitive with cable and EchoStar’s HD lineup. The company’s CES announcement surprised fans and some network executives. Typically networks prefer to trumpet spin-off channels with their own press announcements.

DirecTV said companies were made aware of the CES announcement in advance. But some programming and public relations executives contend they were either caught off guard, or not informed until the last minute that the number of channels on their networks were about to double.

Notably absent from DirecTV’s list was the Voom suite of HD channels. The New York Post reported last week that DirecTV and Voom parent Cablevision are in talks for the satellite provider to purchase the suite. Cablevision’s owners, the Dolan family, has been interested in selling off Voom. The channels have not been profitable for the company and shedding them could raise the asking price for Cablevision, which the Dolans are expected to sell.