ESPNU HD Counts Five Distributors As Launch Nears

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With ESPNU ready to kick off its HD service Thursday, the enhanced college sports service has inked distribution deals with five carriers.

Time Warner Cable, Verizon’s FiOS TV, Blue Ridge, Atlantic Broadband and Broadstripe will all carry ESPNU HD when it launches at 6 a.m. (ET) on Aug. 28, according to ESPN officials. Deal terms were not disclosed.

In its first year with the enhanced signal, ESPNU, which currently counts some 22 million subscribers, is scheduled to offer some 200 events, including all of its live Thursday and Saturday football games, beginning Aug. 28 with Vanderbilt visiting Miami (Ohio) at 7:30 p.m.

“There were some games on ESPNU last year that originated in HD that were syndicated or were simulcast on other properties,” said ESPN vice president of business strategy Eric Ratchman, “but this will be the first time ESPNU provides its programming in HD to its viewers.”

Noting that research shows that ratings are 50% higher for ESPN in homes that offer the HD version of the flagship network, Ratchman anticipates similar results with ESPNU HD. “The TV sports viewing experience is enhanced significantly in HD,” he said. “The demand is there for it.”

According to network officials, ESPN HD reaches more than 20 million subscribers and is available to more than 96 million homes, while ESPN2 HD reaches more than 19 million subscribers and is available in more than 86 million homes.

Ratchman, in an interview last week, said negotiations were ongoing with all of ESPNU affiliates about carrying the HD version of the service.

During a conference call announcing ESPN’s 15-year far-reaching agreement with the Southeastern Conference, senior vice president college sports programming Burke Magnus said the programmer was in “active conversations” with Comcast about carrying ESPNU.

Magnus said he believed the addition of SEC fare, including a primetime college football game, under the new contract, would serve to “accelerate” the negotiations between the parties. ESPNU, which has distribution pacts with seven of the top 10 video providers including Time Warner, Dish, DirecTV, Cox and Charter, has a major hole in its carriage lineup, especially in the nine-states home to SEC schools, without Comcast on its roster.