High-definition programming may seem to be everywhere, but most of it is on HDTV channels that are simply simulcasts of standard-definition services.
Of the 40 to 140 HD channels available from larger pay TV providers, only a handful are HD-only linear channels. Being one of those few pure-play high-definition networks is something of a mixed blessing.
“For a new network, there is clearly an advantage in coming into the market as an all HD-network,” said Smithsonian Networks general manager Tom Hayden. “I'm not sure we would have gotten as much traction if we had come into the market as a standard-definition, ad-supported network.”
But HD-only channels face some challenges. Last month, Time Warner Cable said it was dropping HDNet and HDNet Movies across all of its systems. Similarly, Dish Network bounced Smithsonian Channel at the end of 2008 — though Hayden said “we are in active discussions with them and we anticipate being back on [Dish] by the end of the year.”
Last December, the HD-only ranks grew even thinner when Rainbow Media Holdings said it was shutting down the domestic operations of its Voom HD suite of 15 networks. Rainbow cited the loss of carriage on Dish as a major factor in its decision.
Beyond those disputes, HD-only channels face increased competition from HD simulcasts and a generally more limited advertising and distribution climate.
While high-definition simulcasts are typically bundled with the much more widely distributed standard-definition feeds for ratings and ad-sales purposes, HD-only channels only reach subscribers to HD tiers.
Still, most of the HD-only channels have managed in recent years to capitalize on the demand for more HD content to expand their distribution, and they are aggressively responding to wider availability of HD content by ramping up their original production slates.
“We've really stepped up our original programming,” said HDNet chairman and co-founder Mark Cuban, in an exchange of e-mail for this story. “Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday [evenings] are all-original.”
The push towards more original fare can also be found at Discovery Communications' HD Theater, which is now available in about 22 million homes. When it was first launched as Discovery HD Theater, it featured the best of the programming from its channels, but as the programmer launched high-def simulcasts of its other networks, HD Theater began to put more emphasis on original content.
In 2009, the service will have over 280 hours of new programming; nearly 80% of that will be world or U.S. premieres of original programming specific to the HD-only network.
A particular focus has been high-end automotive programming, with such recent and upcoming programming as Mecum Auto Auctions: Muscle Cars & More; Street Customs: Berlin; Isle of Man TT; the second season of Chasing Classic Cars; and Sun-Ride Earth.
“A number of networks have moved away from auto enthusiast programming,” said Discovery Emerging Networks president and general manager Clark Bunting, who oversees HD Theater. “If you look at our audience, which is a very desirable, well-educated, higher-income, male-skewed audience, we see a hole in the marketplace that we can fill.”
A similar transformation has occurred at Palladia, which was rebranded last year from MHD, said Ben Zurier, executive vice president of program strategy for VH1, VH1 Classic and Palladia.
MHD was originally launched to feature the best in music and awards programming from MTV, VH1, VH1 Classic and CMT. But the rebranded Palladia is focusing on original fare, particularly high-profile concerts and music-oriented movies. “Today, the substantial majority of our content is not repurposed from our sister networks,” Zurier said.
“We premiere a new concert every Saturday night and a movie every Wednesday,” Zurier added. “All the festivals have been coming to us and saying, 'We'd love to be part of your mix.' ”
With distribution “north of 17 million homes,” Zurier said Palladia also hopes to use these festivals and events to build closer ties with operators. “They would provide us with promotion in exchange for having a presence at the event that we'll be airing on the channel,” he said. “We are just starting to work on this in an aggressive way, but I'd be very surprised if we didn't have a couple of those put together by next year.”
Such promotional and brand-building exercises are particularly important for HD-only nets that cannot rely on a widely distributed standard-definition cable network.
A key part of HD networks' branding efforts has been the quality of its programming. Unlike many HD simulcasts, which rely heavily on upconverted standard-definition programming, virtually all of the programming on HD-only networks is shot either on film or native HD. HD-only players are also preparing for the day when most TV content will be available in the format.
“It is not our ambition to be known for our technology because that playing field is going to level out,” said Smithsonian Networks executive vice president of programming and production David Royle. “We want to be known for good, entertaining storytelling and that comes out of our Showtime DNA.”
As part of that effort, Smithsonian Channel, which has already won an Emmy Award for Nature Tech, can also draw on the power of the Smithsonian Institution.
“The Smithsonian name is not only something that resonates on a deep emotion level with Americans, it is also a fantastic resource from a programming point if view,” Royle said.
He points out that they are have worked closely with the Smithsonian on a number of projects, including an upcoming special on the Hope Diamond, which is displayed at the institution.
Smithsonian Channel was originally conceived as an all-VOD service, and it still offers both standard-def and high-def VOD content.
Other channels, notably HDNet Movies, are trying to use on demand to stand out from the growing pack of HD channels.
Cuban noted that HDNet has been making theatrical films available on its Ultra VOD service, a PPV offering that is distributed to nearly all digital VOD homes, for $9.99 to $12.99 about three weeks prior to the film's release in theaters.
“The goal is not only to generate revenue but to also build awareness and buzz,” he said. “We have had multiple titles generate millions of dollars in their Ultra VOD release.”
The Wednesday before the movie opens in theaters, it is also shown for free on HDNet Movies. “It is unique, exclusive and something no other network can possible do,” Cuban noted. The July HDNet Movies Sneak Preview will be Magnolia Pictures feature Answer Man, starting Lauren Graham and Jeff Daniels.
None of the HD networks in this story are rated by Nielsen Media Research because of their limited distribution, and most target fairly broad audiences. But as they expand their distribution and get more viewer feedback, it is likely that they will have to target more specific demographics.
While Discovery's HD Theater has been putting more emphasis on automotive programming, Cuban's HDNet has increasingly targeted 18-to-34-year-old men.
“We really think that as our distribution continues to grow, we can dominate the demographic,” said Cuban.