Hitching HD to a 'Musical' Star


So last Friday night may have been the best test yet of whether an acutely sharp picture is in and of itself enough to draw a huge incremental audience to a show.

That is because DirecTV has situated itself rather ingeniously at the intersection of the two biggest television phenomenons of the year. The technical acronyms are HDTV and HSM2.

The former, of course, stands for high-definition television. The latter stands for High School Musical 2.

That is the show that has shattered all prior viewing records for a show on basic-cable television. And, last Friday night, DirecTV showcased the musical in HD on its original entertainment channel, The 101, at 6 p.m., 9 p.m. and midnight (ET).

Three chances to visit the Lava Springs Country Club, and see how Sharpay tries to lure Troy away from Gabriella to sing a duet for the club's Midsummer Night's Talent Show.

HSM2's standard-definition showing on The Disney Channel brought in 17.2 million viewers. The question that remained was how many new and repeat viewers would be brought in by the high-definition showing a week later on DirecTV, which reaches 15 million households.

We shall see. But it's emblematic of the American need to create marketing opportunities that HDTV and HSM2 became a newsworthy combination at all.

After all, color television did not make a baseball game any more intricate. Or change any of its plot lines. It just made it more interesting to watch. More lifelike.

The same is true with high-definition television. It is more real. Almost too real, for some eyes. It doesn't change plot lines or sports scores. It just makes the fundamental experience better.

Which, naturally, is what DirecTV wants to lever. It's almost an extension of its tagline: “Good TV. Better TV. DirecTV …HDTV.”

But DirecTV is not the only outfit — by a long shot — trying to make hay with some kind of tie to HD at this point.

There's Adobe Systems, which is best known perhaps for the Portable Document Format that allows documents to be frozen and shipped digitally to any place on the globe via the Internet. It also owns the Macromedia Flash Player that animates sites worldwide. And its latest improvement is the addition of a compression standard known by the typically geeky title H.264, which compresses video, but will allow content to “fly at us over the Web in HD.''

And there's Sony with a “Blu-book” that will “push high-definition video into your living room” — or in this case, on to your desk. Who can stand to study film any more if it's not in HD? Or watch the frying pan skills of the “World's Strongest Woman,” Aneta Florczyk, on YouTube, if you can't see the sparks fly in HD?

The rush is on. There is no doubt left that the biggest multichannel TV providers — you know them as Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network and Time Warner Cable — will slug it out, toe-to-toe, over the next couple years in an attempt to create the impression and fulfill the expectation that each is the best in the business at delivering HD programming to all potential — and existing — subscribers. The lawsuits are proof positive of this.

But the fundamental truth is that HD only enhances programming. It doesn't improve it.

There is precious little programming that is actually transformed by being in HD, Mark Cuban's defense of Dan Rather's reporting on HDNet notwithstanding.

Rather, we're just in a transient moment of competition. Whoever can put out something of interest in HD before the next outfit does, will get a momentary ratings blip. A fleeting advantage.

The real win would be to find some kind of programming that is intrinsically fascinating, widely compelling and exclusive to your platform. Because, in two or three years time, all programming will be in HD, just as all programming is now in color.

Unless you're really serious about how high the definition of a picture can be.

In that case, you forget about what all the fuss is about now and, to borrow a DirecTV image, go back to the future. You invest in or buy the technology that has been developed at the University of California at Irvine that puts HDTV to shame. It's a digital technology that puts 200 million picture elements — dots — on a screen. It's 100 times sharper than the best HDTV today.

Do we really want to see the youthful pores of Sharpay and Troy that up close and personal?

Probably not. But whoever thought there'd be five blades in a single disposable Gillette razor?

The marketing machine must be fed. Whether it's HDTV or HSM2.