MSNBC Sees High-Def Debut Next Spring

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MSNBC, having missed the window to launch in HD for this year’s election season, expects to have its high-definition simulcast ready for affiliates in the second quarter of 2009.

The news network had been aiming to launch its HD offering in the fourth quarter of 2008. That turned out to be “a little aggressive,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin said.

“Look, I’d love to be in HD right now,” he said. “The idea of the announcement before the election appealed to me. I pushed our guys hard.”

Last year, the network moved into NBC Universal’s Manhattan headquarters. MSNBC had one HD-ready control room ready to go, but a second was not converted and could not be readied in time for the fall election.

“We don’t want to do it in parts. We want to be fully ready,” Griffin said.

MSNBC, the third-place cable news network on ratings, also will be the last of the three to offer an HD feed. CNN launched its high-definition simulcast in September 2007, while Fox News Channel’s premiered this May.

All three news networks have seen their ratings skyrocket this year, thanks to intense public interest in the presidential primaries and general election pitting John McCain against Barak Obama.

For the third quarter, MSNBC boosted 18-49 viewers by 53% over the year-ago period, to 294,000, according to Disney-ABC Television Group analysis of Nielsen Media research.

CNN more than doubled its audience in the same demographic over those periods, increasing 104% to 420,000, and Fox News was up 63% to reach 439,000 viewers 18-49.

It’s not certain how much lift the HD services have given CNN or Fox News, as the split between standard-def and HD viewers for simulcast channels is not generally available.

Griffin said more important than the picture quality afforded by HD is having a slot in the high-definition “neighborhood.”

“Really this is the price of admission,” he said. “You better be in HD in the next year or so, because you have to be in that tier.”