Diary of a Mad-for-Cable HD Watcher

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Consumers buying into HDTV right now are getting in on the ground floor while the rest of the house is still being built.

In the glee of finally having programming for that shiny new set, much will be forgiven. But once that giddy feeling wears off — the one that leads you to watch anything for at least a minute because it’s in high-definition — consumers will expect more than a handful of HDTV channels.

I say that from first-hand experience. It’s been five weeks since long-awaited Charter HDTV joined our household video lineup.

ESPN WAS KEY

The timing was no fluke. Charter HDTV has been available in St. Louis since October 2003, but ESPN HD, one of the must-haves on our list, didn’t join the lineup until mid-March, coinciding nicely with the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s basketball March Madness.

A 30-day money-back trial starting at that point would carry me through the last rounds of the men’s and women’s tournaments and into the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Finals.

I ordered the service on a Thursday. By the next night, I was switching between the Elite Eight on CBS HD and an NHL game on HDNet.

The picture on our 34-inch, 16-by-9 Sony Wega shifted dramatically whenever I moved from DirecTV or digital cable to Charter HDTV. As promised by high-def pitchman Mark Cuban, hockey on HD was not only sharper in image, but a different game when viewed in wide aspect.

Even so, the earth didn’t move. My world didn’t change.

But my viewing habits did. Suddenly I was watching Hogan’s Heroes and random scenes from movies as my video neighborhood narrowed from hundreds of channels to eight.

As Charter Communications Inc. lacks a deal for HD carriage of primetime programming on the local ABC affiliate (owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group), the Alphabet Network disappeared from my radar. Ditto for the WB shows I follow.

On the other hand, I watched an episode of The West Wing on NBC simply because the documentary style being used as a gimmick was striking when viewed in HD.

HOCKEY NEEDS IT

My expectations shifted, too. Standard-definition hockey games didn’t quite measure up; basketball seemed less vivid. Networks switching between HD and standard-definition started to drive me crazy, as did the change in aspect ratio even when some shows were being upconverted. Events that weren’t in HD — boxing on Home Box Office, for instance — lost an edge.

I understood why MSO executives who had HD last year told of watching second-rate movies or nature shows usually left to their kids just because they were in high-definition.

Based on demonstrations and visits to retailers, the impact is even more dramatic on larger screens.

The current set is an upgrade from our 27-inch Sony Trinitron, more than a decade old. Had we acquired the set and HD at the same time, I’d never be sure which improvements were due to the upgrade in equipment or transmission.

Trust me, HD makes a difference even on a relatively small screen — particularly if that screen can take advantage of the wide aspect ratio.

As the infatuation wore off, I made more of an effort to seek out other channels, mixing HD feeds with digital cable or satellite. And I began to realize the narrow pitch of my HD horizon: HDNet and HDnetMovies (co-founded by Charter investor Cuban); ESPN HD; HBO; Showtime; and affiliates of Fox, CBS and NBC. Charter offers Discovery in other markets but has no immediate plans to add it here.

Only the first two are 100% HD. (I pay monthly fees of $3.85 for the receiver and $3.99 for an HD tier with the two Cuban nets and ESPN HD.)

NOT ALL IN HD

I suspect other consumers may be as surprised as I was to realize that not everything on networks using HD in the name is actually HD.

From covering the launch I knew that ESPN HD was limited, but not HBO and Showtime. Granted, each of the premium channels offers the majority of its programs in HD. MSOs need to do a very good job of managing content expectations or face the risk of disappointing consumers. They also need to watch out for Voom, which will appeal to serious HD users unless the amount of cable HD content increases — for a rational price.

The shallow programming is exacerbated by the lack of a DVR. Charter just rolled out the Motorola Broadband Media Center with Digeo’s Moxi service, HD, and dual-tuner DVR in Rochester, Minn. The sooner it gets here, the better.

The right DVR would alleviate some of the programming gaps by allowing the viewer to record competing HD content, creating a custom HD channel that should always have something on worth watching. (HD VOD makes even more sense to me now.)

If I had to choose between HD and DVR, I might very well choose the latter at this stage. HD enhances the viewing experience but DVR transforms it. Without it I’m chained to the TV, unable to pause for a moment that refreshes or to avoid losing part of a show during an interruption. Instead of creating my own TV menu, I’m stuck on network time. When shows in the HD neighborhood aren’t being broadcast in HD, I switch back to the TiVo-enabled feed.

HOOFING IN HD

That only works because I still have my satellite service. Without it — and the assurance from Charter that a solution is in my near future — the odds are I would have taken full advantage of the trial and cancelled.

At least I’d like to think I would. After a glimpse of HD horse racing on HDNet — you can actually see hoof prints in the mud instead of a murky brown screen — would I willingly give up the Triple Crown on NBC? Would I be satisfied knowing I could see at least part of the Stanley Cup playoffs in HD (the bulk are on the ABC affiliate) or watch a favorite movie with more clarity?

At some point during ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts, the camera pans back in the booth to show the HD monitor and Jon Miller raves about the picture as though it were a perfect game. Until my first chance to watch the HD telecast on April 25, I was the little girl looking longingly through a window at something she couldn’t have. This time, when Miller said something along the lines of “once you have HD you can’t go back again,” I knew what he meant.

I could go back. But it wouldn’t be easy.

Here’s my HD neighborhood, in the order that channels appear on the Charter St. Louis programming guide.

HDNet: Mark Cuban’s HD flagship might be the most wildly uneven network out there, veering from live sporting events to well-produced news reports to ancient sitcoms and failed series.

Via e-mail, Cuban described the net’s evolution: “When we started we needed to get whatever programming we could find until we could build our library. That is no longer the case. We don’t do pretty pictures any more.

“We are programming to draw viewers away from standard-definition networks. Hogan’s Heroes isn’t in primetime anymore; it’s on in the afternoon.”

HDNet produces 15 to 20 hours of original programming a week and has more in the pipeline. Some of the new fare will come from recently launched HDNet Films, with a documentary about the Enron Corp. scandal, and two dramatic films about to start production. Cuban said the network also will have start-to-finish coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival.

As for acquiring programming, he wrote: “We will continue to make significant investments in programming that is produced internally, and that we buy from partners like Lions Gate, WB and others.”

HDNet Movies: So far it’s no replacement for Turner Classic on my personal movie channel list. It may just be my tastes but I haven’t found much yet aside from Ralph Fiennes’s Sunshine, fragments of The Life and Time of Judge Roy Bean and a quirky film featuring a BBC America favorite. Cuban can’t acquire enough movies worth watching fast enough.

ESPN HD: Searching for actual HD is like panning for gold — after the stream’s been picked over. One hundred fifty events sounds like a lot, until you realize days can go by between events. Or, as was the case last weekend, two appear on one day.

Bryan Burns, ESPN’s vice president of strategic business planning and development, laughed when I asked him how those decisions were made, then started spinning tales of complex matters involving trucks, venues and changing plans on the fly when a series ends abruptly. “It is a daily struggle depending on who wins and who loses,” he said.

When the digital studio goes online in June the number of HD hours will start to climb. In addition to an estimated 185 events this year, ESPN will offer 2,200 hours of SportsCenter and about 130 hours of NFL studio programming. One of the biggest changes for viewers won’t hit until the end of the year when a super slo-mo HD camera is introduced.

HBO: My partner thought boxing could be the ultimate test for HD. We eagerly turned to the April 10 bout between St. Louisan Corey Spinks and Zab Judah only to be disappointed. According to HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson, the network might close the boxing gap within the year. Sex and the City wasn’t in HD either, but HBO dramas are — and Deadwood does look even grittier in HD.

Cusson said 75% of the network’s overall schedule is in HD and the remaining amount is upconverted. HBO Films is all HD; the theatrical offerings are 85% HD.

Showtime: Switching channels in the middle of the night I found the one content area that might benefit from staying in standard — what Showtime calls late-night programming and the rest of us might call soft porn.

Most of Showtime is in HD, vice president of business development Julia Veale said, especially when the network has control over the content. “From our perspective, anything in HD we can get our hands on we put up there.” But only when it makes sense creatively. A show produced with handheld cameras, like Freshman Diaries, wouldn’t translate.

Veale says research shows that premium subscribers are twice as likely to watch HD, adding, “The home theater owner wants to see their premium services in HD.”

So does this viewer, sans home theater. Showtime Championship Boxing started producing all domestic fights in HD this year.

Fox (KTVI): This network is slated for HD transformation in the latter half of 2004. Currently transmitting at wide-screen 480, Fox is starting the switch to 720 this June for more than half of the network’s original programming, including The Jury, Casino, North Shore and repeats of Arrested Development.

Fox is in discussion to produce out-of-market games in HD for News Corp.’s DirecTV; I’ll be able to see the game in my market via cable HD while subscribers to DirecTV Inc.’s “NFL Sunday Ticket” would have access to all the games.

Tony Vinciquerra, the CEO of Fox Networks Group, told me Fox’s pace is in step with the marketplace. “Up until this year, really consumers didn’t know what it was about. They’re starting to grasp the concept. We think this holiday season will be the tipping point,” he said. “You can expect to see all major events in sports. We’re going to do as much as we can. It’s a matter of getting the trucks and the people.”

As for primetime programming, he explained, “The dramas are easier. The animated shows are going to be virtually impossible.”

Fox Cable is in discussions with Charter to include regional sports networks on its HD tier. Fox Sports Midwest, with its rights to the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Blues, would be a significant addition to Charter’s local lineup, making up for the lack of the WB affiliate that owns the broadcast rights to both teams.

CBS (KMOV): CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in HD can be scary, but The Masters is a whole new golf game. Too new, perhaps. At times it looked as though CBS was overcorrecting the color, making some holes postcard green. My partner actually preferred the standard picture at times. CBS was one of our must-haves before committing to an HD package. We came close when Charter added CBS affiliate KMOV in time for the Super Bowl, a smart move, but held out for ESPN HD. Primetime is primarily in HD with understandable exceptions like Survivor.

NBC (KSDK): HD programming covers 13 prime-time shows, including all three Law & Order franchises, ER and The West Wing, as well as The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. The dramas don’t need HD to be more compelling, but it’s a nice touch. On the sports side, NBC kicked off the year with the Daytona 500 in HD, but I tuned in during a break in the HD sports action. That’s about to change. The Triple Crown will be in HD as will the Golden Gloves on May 9.

Most importantly, Mike McCarley, director of marketing and communications, NBC Olympics, confirmed that some events from the Athens Olympics will be in HD, although “it’s a bit premature to go into specifics.” One specific offered by corporate NBC that will make home-theater owners happy: The HD Olympics coverage will be in Dolby 5.1 sound.

High-def channels I can’t see — yet — include ABC, PBS, WB, Bravo HD+, Discovery, The Movie Channel HD, INHD, Starz! HD, NFL, NBA, and Cinemax and MSG Network.

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