A&E Has Eye on HDTV

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In its latest platform push, A&E Network will move toward an enhanced presentation this fall with the debut of a high-definition network that will simulcast the service's programming.

The move follows A&E initiatives in the video-on-demand and broadband realms.

“We've gone beyond a traditional television company and now we're a media company that provides content on multiple platforms,” said A&E Television Networks president and CEO Abbe Raven.

A&E will preview the new HD service in June, but will officially launch the channel Labor Day Weekend with a CSI: Miami marathon.

AETN executive vice president of distribution David Zagin said that at launch, 65% of A&E's primetime schedule will available in “true” HD, including new original shows like King of Cars, as well as fresh episodes of returning series Cold Case Files, The First 48, Driving Force, Inked and Dallas SWAT.

A&E vice president of program planning Tom Moody said that the network is allocating an additional 10% to 25% to film its programming in the format, but said the money is being well spent.

90% GOAL

“By 2008, 85% to 90% of its primetime schedule will be HD,” said Zagin. “We recognize that the first wave of networks has gone HD, but the timing was right for A&E from a programming perspective with the anchors of CSI: Miami and The Sopranos in 2007.

“We just think that we have the programming, the commitment and the brand that can help affiliates sell their HD tier,” he said.

Zagin said the company has just begun to negotiate with operators and satellite providers. for the channel. Unlike many HD networks, Zagin said that programming on the channel will either be true HD or offer a widescreen format to eliminate the black bars that appear on the screen for shows that aren't presented in the format.

“We'll be filling out the 16:9 aspect ratio for the entire network, rather than going back and forth with filler boxes and then back to HD,” he said. “We just think the best way to serve the viewer is to try to have a consistent look, and then as we ramp up our percentage of true HD that's only going to help us with the appearance of the network.”

Meanwhile, sister network The History Channel won't offer its own enhanced service until sometime next year. “As we have discussions with operators an get an idea of what their bandwidth looks like and what the appetite is for more HD product, it will help direct us a to whether its early 2007 or late 2007,” Zagin said.

RAVEN'S MANDATE

Since taking over the reins of AETN a year ago, Raven's mandate has been to move the network beyond its linear lines.

“We looked at how to exploit all the new technology to better serve our consumers and our audiences, so we aggressively went after HD and other rights for all the content we acquired and get it into the marketplace.”

As a result, the network also has made inroads on the VOD side, offering exclusive vignettes from such original shows as Criss AngelMindfreak and 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America on Comcast Corp.'s VOD service.

In the broadband space, Raven said AETN has acquired exclusive content such as Elevator Moods — dramatic stories that take place on elevator rides —along with snippets from its original content that reside on AETV.com.

The company also has in development as many as 300 “mini” biographies from its popular franchise, including looks at Bill Murray, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and Meryl Streep that it will launch on the Web later this year.

“The beauty for AETN is that the majority of our programming is original, so we can control the rights and make sure we have the opportunity to use it not just for traditional television, but to begin the creation of short-form content for broadband,” she said.

By working with these platforms, Raven is confident that the A&E will appeal to even more young viewers: the network's median age has dropped from 61 years of age two years ago to 45 last year.

“We know the younger viewers are the early adapters of the new technology so it's really helped positioned the company to go after new media and to be in this space,” she said.

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