Driving for More HDTV

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Fox Sports Net will deliver crisper images of whirring slap shots, more pristine views of rainbow three-pointers and enhanced takes of fastballs catching the black in 2005-06.

FSN plans to vastly increase the number of live National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball games it offers in HDTV over the next year.

With more portable satellite trucks to transmit both HD and standard feeds at its disposal, FSN’s 14 owned and affiliated regional sports networks, will proffer upwards of 475 pro hockey, basketball and baseball games in HD, beginning this month, according to chief operating officer Randy Freer. That’s a more than double the 202 games aired in HD during the 2003-04 season and a 68% increase over last year’s scheduled 282 games (60 of which were NHL contests that FSN planned to air but didn’t, due to the league’s year-long labor dispute).

Freer said the increase in HD telecasts is a response to requests from operators, viewers and leagues. “Like with any other technological advancement, sports seems to be one of the main drivers of HD, so our distributors, viewers and the leagues are asking for more HD content,” he said. “With the time off from the NHL last year, we had a chance to upgrade our [transmission] trucks and that’s allowed us to increase our production.”

Indeed, Freer said that FSN’s 11 satellite trucks now have the ability to deliver both a standard signal and an HD signal, which has significantly reduced the production and distribution costs for the enhanced format, although he would not provide specific figures.

Still, there are additional costs for the programming that will ultimately come out of operator pockets. “In some situations there’s an additional charge, in some situations there’s an increase in the rate [card] or some other exchange of value,” Freer said, although he declined to identify any completed or pending contracts with carriers. “There’s a definite value on HD today, and we are getting value back for it.”

Along with the pro sports, Randy said, FSN will look to telecast select college basketball games — including play within the Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-10. “Next year I think you’ll see a pretty good increase in HD for college football,” he said. “I certainly hope we get to a point where all of our live programming is in HD, especially the pro games.”

But while operators and viewers have asked for more HDTV, Fox says it does not have any indication whether consumers with HD sets are actually viewing the FSN’s HD feed.

Nevertheless, the network is adding HD equipment functionality to its main Houston technological center, which serves as the production and transmission hub for a dozen of its owned-and-operated networks.

“That will allow us to do more programming in HD as well as up-convert [standard-definition] programming to HD,” he said. “We’ll be able to move toward creating even more HD programming for the regionals without having to set up full digital HD studios in each region.”

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