NBC Bankrolls HD Bravo


NBC, looking to demonstrate its commitment to expand and improve Bravo, plans to launch a standalone high-definition version of the cable network within the next six months, according to officials.

"We really feel we need to have a place at the table in HD," David Zaslav, president of NBC Cable, said last week. "And Bravo HD presents a real unique opportunity for us to participate with a separate cable channel.

"This is central to our core strategy to extend the reach, and reinforce the fact that we're really committed to Bravo," he added.

NBC officials are considering calling the HD network "Bravo Plus" or "Bravo Plus HD," according to Zaslav. That's because the HD channel will not only include a simulcast of Bravo programming converted to HD, but also special content — some of it potentially provided by NBC and some created only for Bravo HD.

"Bravo in HD will give us a chance to strut our stuff a little bit, not just with the content that's on Bravo, but also by putting some unique, really high-end programming content on there," Zaslav said.

Developing an HD version of Bravo — a pricey proposition — marks NBC's first major strategic move for its cable-network acquisition. The Peacock Network, in part looking for a cable outlet for some of its entertainment programming, acquired Bravo from Cablevision Systems Corp. last year for $1.25 billion.

NBC saw Bravo, with its arts-oriented fare and signature series Inside the Actor's Studio,
as a good fit, attracting the same younger, upscale audience as the broadcast network.

"We're going to be reinvesting substantially in Bravo in the near term and over the next few years to continue to provide programming that meets that high-end demographic," Zaslav said. "We have a chance to do all kinds of neat things with NBC in the process."

There is no firm launch date for Bravo HD, but Zaslav said it would debut in the next three to six months.

Zaslav would not spell out the size of the "substantial investment" NBC would have to make for the HD version of Bravo, but claimed NBC "is ready to spend some real dollars to make it a quality service."

ESPN sets HD sked

A number of cable programmers have launched or are about to launch standalone HD channels, including Discovery Communications Inc., Home Box Office, Showtime Networks Inc. and ESPN.

In fact, at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, ESPN set a debut date for ESPN HD and released its programming schedule. The service will kick off March 30 with ESPN's first Major League Baseball game of the season: the Texas Rangers at the world champion Anaheim Angels.

The ESPN HD lineup also includes the Women's National Collegiate Athletic Association Basketball Final Four, the National Basketball Association Eastern Conference Finals, games from the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs, and six telecasts from the College World Series.

Showtime said its SHO HDTV service's first live high-definition telecast would take place on Feb. 22 at 10 p.m. ET: a heavyweight boxing match between Mike Tyson and Clifford Etienne. The fight will be shown in standard definition on Showtime.

NBC Cable has spent the past few months studying HDTV and talking about it with MSOs, according to Zaslav, who sees high-definition as a good platform for Bravo.

"It's a technology that all of the distributors are embracing, and even though there are very few people right now that have HD, the demographic group that has embraced it, and is likely to embrace it over time, is a great fit for NBC," Zaslav said.

Just last week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association reported that cable operators are making HDTV programming available to one-third of all U.S. TV households in 90 markets. In 62 of the top 100 markets, at least one cable operator is providing HDTV, according to the NCTA.

The NCTA's HDTV update was immediately criticized by the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB complained that in most of the 90 markets cited by the NCTA, cable systems were only carrying cable-network HDTV services. The NAB asserted that broadcast HDTV was only being offered by cable systems in just over 30 of those DMAs.

Back in May, the 10 biggest MSOs promised by Jan. 1 to "offer to carry" — not actually launch — up to five cable and broadcast HDTV services on high-capacity systems, in markets where they have at least 25,000 subscribers. That commitment was made to Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell.

Ready for op talks

Zaslav said Bravo HD will have a substantial amount of programming in HD "out of the box," and that will ramp up over time. There will be also special programming — "different, unique, compelling content" — on Bravo HD's lineup.

"We're looking at that now," Zaslav said. "Some of it could be things that were on NBC, some of it could be things that are just on Bravo HD and are not either [Bravo or NBC]."

NBC has a lot of HD programming that would land on Bravo HD.

"We're building a nice library of content at NBC," Zaslav said. "And there will be opportunities over the next few years for us to do things together, between NBC and Bravo HD as well."

As to Bravo HD's potential rate card, NBC Cable is ready to sit down with cable operators and develop a viable business model for the fledgling business.

"There are some distributors that want to charge a lot for HD and offer it in a package," Zaslav said. "There are a number we've spoken to who say, 'We'll offer everybody [HD networks] a la carte at a higher rate.' There are some that say they want to do it for free."

Zazlav said he views the marketing of HD as an "open field" now.

"Nobody is right and nobody is wrong," he said. "Clearly, we prefer an economic model that gets us to breakeven sooner. I think the likely model is that there will be a group of HD services offered in a package for $10 to $12, and that the programmers will split the revenue with the operators. That's probably the model that works best for us and the operators."

But Zaslav added that he's not opposed to operators offering Bravo HD "independently," or a la carte, for "a higher price," because those with HD TV sets today are "pretty willing to spend almost anything to get as much HD" content as possible.

Ted Hearn contributed to this story.