ESPN is the latest network to make a play for high-definition television, announcing it will simulcast 100 live events in the format by mid-2003.
Starting next April, ESPN HD will supply HDTV feeds of select Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League and National Hockey League games. It will also include X Games coverage, The ESPY Awards
and live college championship events such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association Women's Final Four and the Atlantic Coast Conference Men's Basketball Tournament.
ESPN will encode the HD video at 720p for transmission to cable operators and satellite providers. Eventually, ESPN plans to convert all of its signal to that format for display on HD sets.
Adding HD content to ESPN's lineup is a good fit, given the format's rectangular picture and razor-sharp clarity, said vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches.
"We thought it was a natural for us to get into this business," he said. "Secondly, our affiliates have been asking us to do this.
"There is a demand for content in the marketplace for high def, so we are responding to our affiliates," he added. "And from a fan perspective, while the market is still growing in terms of HD-enabled sets, we think in is going to materially enhance the fan experience.
"And I think with regard to high definition, the killer application in terms of content is sports — particularly content with a lot of movement, as we display."
Adding HD encoding and transmission gear did require a significant capital investment. Not only will it entail upgrades to ESPN's production center in Bristol, Conn., it will also require HD-enabled remote trucks to support the live telecast.
By January 2004, ESPN plans to complete the Bristol upgrades. That will allow the sports outlet to add 3,700 hours of studio programs, such as SportsCenter, to its HD roster.
While such a move may seem to be in the far future, ESPN has considered the possibility that one day it may broadcast exclusively in HD.
"We have discussed that, and we think there is a point in the future where that could very well happen," Bratches said. "There is an opportunity, but there is also a hurdle in the marketplace because there is going to be a downconversion at the local headend. So I don't see that for a while. But that could be the end game."
For now, though, there are no plans to cut the analog feed to basic subscribers.