ABC Clicks On Online HDTV Test

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ABC.com Tuesday quietly kicked off a beta-test of its “high-definition” Internet-TV channel with four episodes from the network’s top-rated primetime shows -- but if your broadband connection and PC aren’t fast enough, you won’t see any difference over the regular versions.

In a cheeky disclaimer of sorts on the site, ABC promises to deliver the HD programming “at the best quality and the biggest size allowed by law, or by your hardware.”

The four HD episodes are the recently aired season finales of Desperate Housewives (“Getting Married Today”), Grey’s Anatomy (“Didn’t We Almost Have It All”), Lost (“Through the Looking Glass”) and Ugly Betty (“East Side Story”).

ABC announced the online-HD plans in May and said it will expand the HD content on the site with the launch of the fall season in September.

In a test of the feature, Multichannel News found that the full-screen episodes were indeed sharper than the standard versions available on ABC.com, as long as the Internet connection hovered around 2 megabits per second.

Still, the experience doesn’t compare to watching HDTV on a big-screen set. ABC.com compressed the video down to about 2 mbps using codecs from On2 Technologies, whereas cable operators typically encode HD streams in MPEG-2 format at between 12 and 19 mbps. ABC.com uses video-player software from Move Networks to deliver the episodes to users’ computers as files (as opposed to truly streaming the video in real-time).

ABC has taken steps to set viewers’ expectations about whether they’ll even be able to get the “online HD” programs. Before launching the HD channel, the site pops up a list of recommended minimum requirements: an Internet connection of at least 2 mbps, a PC with a dual-core processor and 1 gigabyte of random-access memory and a monitor capable of displaying 1,300-by-770 resolution.

In addition, an indicator in the bottom-right corner of the player’s screen shows the current speed available to the viewer, and the “HD” logo lights up only when there’s enough bandwidth to display the video at a high enough resolution to be considered HD. ABC.com’s HD programs meet the minimum technical definition of 720p (progressive) HDTV, providing 1,280-by-720 resolution at 24 frames per second.

With the addition of the HD channel, ABC.com hopes to build its lead as one of the most popular online-entertainment destinations. The site in May had 14.6 million unique viewers, more than twice the number from the same period a year ago (7 million), according to comScore Media Metrix.

Advertisers on ABC.com’s media player include Advil, Allstate, Brita, Diet Pepsi Max, DirecTV, Nissan, Principal Financial Group and Sears, Roebuck.

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