FOX PLANS A PAIR OF NEW HD NETS

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Fox Networks Group plans to launch two high-definition networks early next year — an HDTV version of National Geographic Channel and Fox HD, which will draw from sporting events and popular TV series from broadcast network Fox, cable sister FX and other networks.

“Our goal is to help sell the concept of high-definition,” said Fox Networks Group CEO Tony Vinciquerra, predicting that there will be a big spike in sales of HDTV sets during the holiday season.

“We want to be positioned with our product to take advantage of that … it’s time to start putting the pedal to the metal to get this thing out,” he said.

Fox executives will seek license fees from cable and satellite distributors for the networks, which they hope will be carried on HDTV programming tiers, Vinciquerra said. The News Corp. unit is expected to announce the “NGC HD” plans today (Aug. 8).

NGC HD is scheduled to debut in January, timed to mark the fifth anniversary of the domestic launch of National Geographic Channel.

The high-definition channel will be a straight simulcast of the standard-definition version of National Geographic, which has stepped up its production of HDTV shows to prepare for the rollout of NGC HD.

NGC HD will compete in the same niche as Discovery HD Theater, which launched in 2002. Discovery Networks U.S.’s HD channel compiles programming from its various networks and has some shows that are exclusive to it, such as Sunrise Earth, which captures pretty sunrises in high-def each morning.

Discovery HD also could provide templates for how NGC is packaged. Cox Communications Inc. initially offered Discovery HD Theater in a premium tier, but now carries the channel in its lifeline HDTV service, giving it to all subscribers that lease a high-definition set-top.

Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable also carry channels such as Discovery HD Theater, TNT HD and local HD broadcast signals in lifeline HDTV tiers.

FOX HD POSSIBILITIES

A firm launch date hasn’t been set for Fox HD. The network will run programming from several Fox venues, including 20th Century Fox Television, producer of 24, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Files; Fox Television Studios (Malcolm in the Middle, The Shield); and 20th Century Fox Film Corp. (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of The Sith).

Fox HD may also simulcast NASCAR races on FX, and run programming from Speed Channel, Fuel TV and other Fox-owned networks.

While television rights won’t be an issue for NGC HD, since National Geographic produces most of its original programming, executives said it will be more of a challenge to line up programming for Fox HD, since some distributors may not want programming to appear on Fox HD before syndication runs.

Vinciquerra said Fox Networks doesn’t expect to generate a big profit with either NGC HD or Fox HD. “This is not a business were putting together to help the bottom line. This is a business we’re getting into to help the digital transition,” he added.

Executives at National Geographic Channel said they began preparing for the launch of NGC HD 18 months ago, when they began producing most network programming in high-definition. About 90% of the National Geographic’s primetime schedule will be shot in HD.

“I think it enhances and is the next logical evolution of our current business,” said National Geographic Channel president Laureen Ong, who plans to meet in New York this week to pitch advertisers on NGC HD.

National Geographic executive vice president of programming John Ford compared NGC HD to ESPN HD and TNT HD, which run straight simulcasts from their standard-definition counterparts. But he said NGC HD would contain mostly programs shot in HDTV, and fewer programs upconverted from standard definition.

Some cable operators balked at paying ESPN and TNT additional license fees for their HD networks, arguing that they shouldn’t have to pay content suppliers twice for the same content.

But Ford maintained that NGC HD would appease subscribers that lease HDTV set-tops. He also pointed to consumer demand for a high-def version of National Geographic, including a Beta Research Corp. survey in April, in which National Geographic was the network that respondents said they most wanted to see in high-def.

“Cable is about abundance, and consumers have indicated an interest in a greater abundance of HD programming sources. We’re here to meet that need,” Ford said.

The production costs of HDTV programming continue to decrease, but it still costs about 10% to 15% more on average to shoot a program in HDTV compared to standard definition, Ford said.

National Geographic plans two big programming events next year that Ford expects will be popular in HD — Blackbeard and Savage Enemies, which was shot in Zimbabwe.

DIRECTV COULD CARRY THEM

News corporate sibling DirecTV Inc. could be one of the first distributors to carry NGC HD and Fox HD. But Vinciquerra said Fox doesn’t get a free pass to distribute networks on DirecTV, in which News Corp. owns a 34% stake.

“Any deal between Fox and DirecTV has to be approved by an independent committee of directors. We’ll negotiate with them, just like we do with everybody else,” Vinciquerra said.

The staple programming for Fox HD will be sporting events, a source said. Another big component of the channel may be “broken series” owed by Fox studios — shows that may have had a 30-episode run on Fox that were shot in HD, and remain in its library.

Fox HD may also run series that ran on Fox in previous seasons. It may also pull shows from FX, Speed Channel and other outlets.

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