On Dec. 5, the National Basketball Association's Orlando Magic lost their 18th straight game to the San Antonio Spurs, 105-94, with Tim Duncan scoring a season-high 47 points.
The game was memorable for another reason. It was the first of 200 contests Fox Sports Net will distribute in HDTV in the next year across its regional sports networks.
At the behest of Time Warner Cable, FSN has entered the HDTV arena, retrofitting two mobile production trucks to handle HDTV and setting up a schedule to produce for Time Warner Cable HDTV telecasts of the NBA, National Hockey League and (starting this spring) Major League Baseball, over a geographic area that stretches from California to Minnesota to Florida.
"FSN has always believed strongly in the power of localism, and taking it to a new level with high-def is the next natural progression," said Fox Sports Net president Bob Thompson.
The thought of launching HD is no small feat for FSN. Fox Sports owns 12 regional sports networks and has an interest in 10 more, covering 66 of a possible 80 professional teams — 24 from MLB, 22 in the NBA and 20 from the NHL. FSN also carries college games from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12, Pacific-10 and Mountain West conferences.
Over the past two years, Thompson said, Fox Sports Net began looking at HDTV as others entered the market. But the spark to get serious came earlier this year.
"The affiliate-sales group came back and said: 'This has now become a request. Take a look at the following markets and tell me what you could do," Thompson said. That request came from Time Warner Cable.
"The big issue became facilities and cost," he said. "Could I meet the request for the number of productions by Time Warner with the existing number of remote facilities out there in a manner that was cost effective? We looked at a couple of years of past schedules, and ultimately determined that we could."
The Time Warner Cable/Bright House Networks footprint spans the country, from Fox Sports West, West 2 and Southwest, to Fox Sports North to Fox Sports South and Sunshine Network.
The teams covered include the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks and Memphis Grizzlies and the NHL's Minnesota Wild, Tampa Bay Lightning, Los Angeles Kings and Carolina Hurricanes.
Those teams line up with the following Time Warner/Bright House markets: Los Angeles; Houston; San Antonio, Texas; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; San Diego; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Charlotte. N.C.; Tampa Bay; and Orlando, Fla.
LEARNED FROM HDNET
Although Fox Sports Net's first telecast was the Dec. 5 Magic-Spurs game, it has gained plenty of HD experience through an arrangement with Mark Cuban's HDNet.
Cuban's channel had deals for HD production of some NHL and MLB games over the past few years. Thompson said HDNet produced their telecasts using some facilities in Fox's standard-definition production truck and used FSN's graphics and announcers.
"We were able to have a bit of a learning curve and lab to work in, as Mark did his games," Thompson said. "It was very helpful to us."
The Time Warner Cable launch meant working through production-cost issues across the country. (Fox Sports is distributing HD in the 720 progressive format, the same format ESPN uses for its HD telecasts.)
Fox Sports has a partnership with Colorado Studios for standard-definition mobile production trucks, and began converting two of those trucks over to HD this summer.
Those trucks bounce around the country to handle the HD telecasts. But in some cases, Fox gets the benefit of a two-fer, when the two teams playing are both in Fox HD markets. The Dec. 5 Spurs-Magic game was one example.
In that dual-market situation, a single HD feed went to both the San Antonio and Orlando markets. But the announcers and commercial packages for each market are overlaid onto the HD feed, still using one truck, so Orlando viewers see local announcers and commercials. "That gives you the same equipment and same quality as putting in two trucks," Thompson said.
In other cases, FSN is handling both a HD and a standard-definition feed from the same truck. There are certain cameras that are shared, Thompson said, but there are also cameras that are dedicated to each feed.
"We can put in two switchers, and two sets of graphics in the same truck and have complete flexibility on replay," he said. "With disk-based replay systems, both production teams can access video."
ADDING A TRUCK
Thompson said FSN is preparing a third HD truck for rollout, which will ease the driving burden of the two now racing across the country.
"As we add more events, and add more MSOs, we're going to build a few more," he said. "And by using the dual feed, we hope to expand the relationship with other RSNs."
The dual-feed technology also has benefits for standard definition, Thompson said. "It brings down the costs of SD, and that helps us pay for the production costs on HD games."
Fox's "master control" center is based in Houston, where HD equipment also has been installed and shared amongst the networks.
At the moment, Fox Sports Net is concentrating on professional sports for its HD coverage. "We are looking at doing some collegiate stuff for Fox Sports, probably next college football season," Thompson said. "We have some incremental costs per game, and additional satellite feed and transmission costs, but our costs are reasonable when you combine the reduction in costs with utilizing the dual feed."