For five of Comcast's entertainment and sports networks, the big bang for HD programming will arrive on Dec. 8. That's when the Comcast Programming Group will flip the switch to launch new HD simulcast feeds for E!, Style and G4. Meanwhile, The Golf Channel and Versus, which had been sharing an HD channel, will each get simulcast channels.
“We are making large investments across the board to upgrade our production to HD,” Comcast Programming Group president Jeff Shell said. “We will have a big chunk of programming available at launch. It won't be just up-converted standard-def feeds.”
Some Comcast cable systems will get a preview of the big bang, with the launch of the E! HD feed on Oct. 15, prior to its national launch. All of the channels will be available in 1080i.
Shell said Comcast will also have HD video-on-demand offerings at launch, though the company was not yet ready to release details.
Comcast executives also declined to name which MSOs will carry the feeds, but noted that they won't charge extra for the HD simulcasts and that they expect to gain widespread distribution for the services.
Shell expects virtually all the cable operators currently taking the Golf and Versus hybrid HD channel to take the two separate feeds and that most will also take the E! feed.
“The content we have is of particular interest to operators,” he said. “Obviously sports are a big driver in HD, but the red carpet production and entertainment programming we do at E! is a natural as well.”
While Dec. 8 is the big day for the launch of the five new simulcast feeds, the task of transitioning to HD has been a lengthy and expensive process, requiring massive upgrades of studios, control rooms and other aspects of network operations.
Although this requires massive operational changes, Shell said, “The biggest challenge has been getting the capital and taking it from other places. Like any other business, we are always looking at how we invest our money and the returns. HD is a little hard because you know you need to do it but you can't quantify the benefits and there isn't an immediate return. You can always decide to wait another year.”
Still, the networks began investing in HD production about five years ago and will continue revamping their infrastructure into the second and third quarter of 2009, when some of E! and G4's signature daily shows will move to HD production.
In terms of the facilities and operations, Comcast's sports networks are the furthest along. The regional sports networks, which already have HD feeds, have dramatically increased their HD production in recent years.
In early 2007, Golf and Versus launched their hybrid HD channel with programming from each network. Also in 2007, Versus opened a new HD studio for its Hockey Central show and in 2008 started producing its College Football Central show in HD.
“When we built our studio and post production facilities we did it with HD in mind with everything HD ready and compatible,” making it relatively easy to upgrade the facilities and ramp up to HD production, said Marc Fein, executive vice president of programming production and business operations for Versus. Currently, Versus is working with the Comcast Media Center to upgrade its playout and master control room.
Versus is already doing all of its National Hockey League games and college football games in HD, as well as boxing and World Extreme Cagefighting matches and a number of hunting and fishing programs.
With the launch of a separate HD simulcast feed, Versus will then have room to expand its HD programming to a number of other sports, including the IndyCar Series and Tour de France cycling.
In 2009, the network will add about 15% to 20% more HD fare and push the proportion of native HD programming to about 70% in primetime, Fein said.
E! has also been prepping for its high-def close up for a number of years but faces larger upgrades that will delay the launch of some of its signature programs until the second quarter of 2008. “We've had to rebuild the entire infrastructure for the networks,” said Steve Blue, Comcast Entertainment Group senior vice president of production and operations.
The first to make the transition was E!'s red carpet coverage. “We've been producing all of its red carpet coverage of the Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammies, Oscars and SAG Awards in HD for five years because we knew we would end up moving to HD and because so much of what we use in recurring shows revolves around stuff from the red carpet. We knew we needed it for our library.”
This year, E! also began producing a number of original programs and series in high-def, including Denise Richards: It's Complicated, Living Lohan, Sunset Tan, Pam: Girl on the Loose and Snoop Dogg's Father Hood, according to Blue.
The third season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians is currently in production in HD but won't run until 2009.
The next step will be upgrading the studios and control rooms for the network's studio shows — E! News, The Daily 10, Chelsea Lately, and The Soup. “These are all going to switch to full HD probably early in the second quarter of 2009,” Blue said, with Chelsea being the first to make the transition.
Over the next two quarters, E! is also beginning to produce all of its True Hollywood Stories and countdown shows in HD, with the first of those programs beginning to air in the second quarter of 2009.
At launch, about 10% of E!'s high-definition feed will be shot in native HD but this will increase dramatically to about 50% in 2009 once shows like Chelsea Lately, E! News and The Daily 10 move to high-def.
“We've also been actively producing HD content for Style this year,” Blue said. “Beginning a few weeks ago, we began producing basically 100% of the Style's original production in HD,” though a number of those series [won't debut] until 2009.
Current and upcoming HD productions for Style in 2008 include Ruby, Instant Beauty Pageant, Split Ends and Fat Free Fiancés. In 2009, the network will run HD productions of the second season of Peter Perfect, the third season of Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane, Clean House, Kimora: Baby Phat Special, Giuliana & Bill Reality Special, Running in Heels and Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?
A lot of G4's schedule is taken up with daily series. Some of the network's acquired programming, such as Lost and Heroes, are already available in HD and some of its original fare, including Ninja Warrior and Hurl!, have been shot in HD.
But the studio and control room used for its daily series Attack of the Show! and X-Play that take up so much of the network's schedule won't be completely upgraded to HD until early in the third quarter of 2009, Blue said.
“The big bang in terms of volume of HD production on G4's schedule will happen then,” he said.