Cable Operators

Hitting the High-Def Notes

9/23/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

In the 1980s, MTV: Music Television and Black Entertainment Television propelled the music-video format into a must-see phenomenon for young viewers. But the live-concert music category was never able to hit the same high notes among viewers.

HDTV technology promises to change all of that. Network executives believe that concert programming, enhanced with the crisp, beautiful picture quality and the incredible surround sound clarity, will become one of the biggest drivers of HD set-top boxes into cable subscriber homes.

With the exception of a few big concert events, featuring such artists as Michael Jackson, Madonna and New Kids On The Block, viewers have been unable to sing the virtues of concert performances aired on small, standard-definition television sets in early, two-speaker stereo audio format.

“Everything [in standard-definition] is protected for 4x3 [aspect ratio], and the audio is dumbed down,” says Mark Cuban, president of 24-hour HD network HDNet. “That actually creates a disappointing experience for HD users and leaves a bad taste in their mouth.”

But the advent of HD, with its rich picture quality, combined with Dolby 5.1 surround sound audio and big screen televisions, has greatly enhanced the viewing experience of music on television.

That has inspired a renaissance of televised music, courtesy of networks such as In Demand LLC’s INHD channels, HDNet and Rainbow Media Holding Inc.’s Rave HD music channel. Executives from those services say there has always been interest in watching concerts on television, but HD technology brings the live concert experience into the home.

“I think HD will finally give music the platform that it deserves on television,” says Sal LoCurto, vice president of programming Rave HD. “We’ve all watched music on the small screen before with tiny speakers, so we’ve never really experienced what HD can provide. I think music offers more in HD than any other content because of the audio experience.”

COSTS COMING DOWN

While most executives agree that HD provides the right melody for the success of televised concerts, creating and distributing such content isn’t cheap. Producing live concert shows in standard-definition was already a financial challenge because of the numerous camera and lighting demands required. HD equipment increases production costs by 25% to 50%.

But In Demand president Rob Jacobson says HD’s pricetag has dropped by as much as 25% over the past couple of years, making it more cost effective to create and distribute such programs. In addition, networks can partner with the artists and studios to develop ancillary products such as DVDs to help offset production costs.

“There are a lot of ways you can use that concert footage whereby that cost of production can be amortized over time,” says Jacobson, whose INHD channels have developed several HD concerts, including the upcoming Farm Aid benefit concert.

“If the concert is produced in HD, then you can produce a DVD that can be shown in both HD and standard format,” he adds. “We’ve been creative in how we structure these deals so that we can get good programming at a price that we can afford, and it makes sense for the artists as well.”

In addition, prices for HDTV sets and home-theater equipment are also falling. Executives say as more people purchase HD sets, demand for quality content such as concerts will continue to build.

“Until recently, high-definition was a high-income toy, but the cost of HD equipment is 50% less than it was a year ago, so the high-def receivers and monitors are starting to filter through the various consumer levels,” says Showtime Sports and Event programming senior vice president and executive producer Jay Larkin.

Showtime is one of the few linear non-HD networks to distribute concerts in HD, featuring such stars as Brittney Spears, Usher and Eminem.

“[HD] is now reaching a level where it’s a mass-consumer product, and as that happens the demand for high-definition content will increase,” Larkin adds.

TOO CLEAR FOR COMFORT?

But not everyone is convinced that HD is the killer app for the live concert business. While the sharpness and clarity of HD technology is appealing to viewers, executives say some image-conscious artists are not as excited about the technology.

“HD can uncover a lot of what people might not want to be seen,” says Michael Shimbo, president of upstart video-on-demand service Concert Network. “You never consider that, because when you’re [watching] the football field or the boxing ring, HD brings such life to the experience. But if you’re looking at an old rock and roller on stage, there’s a lot that’s lost.”

To remedy that issue, Showtime Sports and Event Programming senior vice president and general manager Ken Hershman says the network often gives its HD concert telecasts more of a softer film look. “You get some of the efficiencies and beauty of high-def, but you can actually get away from that too-close-for-comfort effect,” he says.

Shimbo also says that HD often removes some of the aura and romanticism of vintage concerts.

“As a television viewer, there’s no doubt that an HD experience is a better experience for most,” he says. “But when you touch music, there is a nostalgic quality of having something grainy — having something look historical as opposed to being resurrected in some new format.”

Even INHD’s Jacobson admits that HD by itself won’t make live concerts a must-see prospect for viewers. He does believe that, when combined with the ability to view music programming on an on-demand basis, HD will boost the category.

Jacobson says people have a lot of other programming options, and music is not the type of genre that sparks appointment-viewing habits.

“In almost all cases, music is great in high-def, but whether it’s the killer app for the category remains to be seen. In our way of thinking, you have to combine it with other elements that people have come to expect from music, and that’s more of an on-demand component.”

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