Networks Get 'Higher Def' Without Regulators' Prods

Publish date:
Updated on

Cable MSOs that want to take Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell up on his challenge to push high-definition television will find more such programming available this year than ever before.

On June 17, Discovery Networks Inc. plans to launch Discovery HD Theater. Internally, the company had aimed for a Sept. 1 launch. It decided to get out early to beat the start of the broadcasters' fall season, CEO John Hendricks said last week.

Discovery's HD service will include programming from all of its channels, including Animal Planet, Discovery Health and Travel Channel.

"Distributors are excited about it because they want to attract and maintain their highest-end customers," Discovery vice president of new media Clint Stinchcomb said.

Discovery has yet to sign up any HD affiliates, but expects interest to grow once its satellite uplink to MSOs is operational. The programmer wants to claim its share of HD shelf space before it runs out, Hendricks said.

"It's a spectrum hog," Hendricks said of HDTV. "Over time, you may see only seven or eight high-definition channels" on a given cable system.

The 24-hour network will draw from the company's 115 HD titles, and will offer sponsors a chance to air HD ads. Early offerings will include When Dinosaurs Roamed America, Fireballs from Space
and Extreme Hawaii.

Discovery HD Theater will not interrupt shows shorter than 30 minutes in length, but will offer commercial breaks during longer broadcasts, said Hendricks. Viewers will need the breaks, he said, as they can't yet record HD fare for later viewing.


Billionaire Mark Cuban — one of the early players in high-definition programming, through his HDNet service — said he plans to expand his single-channel empire to add three more HD networks later this year.

The owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks said the new, genre-specific HDNet channels — geared to sports, movies and general entertainment — will be premium services. The original HDNet will remain advertiser-supported.

HDNet, which is carried by direct-broadcast satellite provider DirecTV Inc., is the high-definition display feed of choice for many consumer-electronics stores, so the network has sold time to several set makers, including Mitsubishi, Thomson Consumer Electronics' RCA brand and Zenith, Cuban said.

Next year, Comcast Corp. plans to offer about 100 pro baseball, basketball and hockey games in HD on each of its Comcast SportsNet services in the Philadelphia and Washington markets.

The feeds will be available to other MSOs with HD capabilities, Comcast SportsNet said. The Philadelphia regional sports network is exclusive to cable, but the Washington outlet (the former Home Team Sports) has satellite distribution, said Comcast SportsNet president Jack Williams.

But DirecTV isn't likely to add HD feeds for regional sports networks, said senior vice president of programming acquisitions Michael Thorton. It would be hard to justify allocating so much bandwidth for a service that isn't national and that has a limited number of subscribers, he said.

HD will allow SportsNet "to show sports programming better than we've been able to do before," Williams said. "With hockey, you'll see more of the rink and follow the movement of the puck more closely."

There aren't many HDTV sets in consumer homes right now, Williams acknowledged. "As programmers begin to offer product in high-definition, more and more people will buy the sets," he added.

Premium programmers Home Box Office and Showtime Networks Inc. launched HD feeds earlier in the decade. Since then, both programmers have steadily increased the amount of programming offered each day.

Both HBO and Showtime offer East and West coast feeds for operators that want to drive digital subscriptions through multiple HD channels.

In addition to its direct-broadcast satellite carriage, HBO's HD channel is carried on more than 60 U.S. cable systems, senior vice president of technology operations Bob Zitter said. Additional operators plan to roll out the channel later this year, he added.


Operators are working with set-top vendors to build less expensive, integrated HD-capable digital set-tops — a move that will spur cable to deploy HDTV, Zitter said.

Twelve MSOs — representing about 12 million basic-cable and DBS customers — can now receive Showtime's HD feed, said network senior vice president of corporate strategy Glenn Oakley.

"It's vast distribution for the relatively small number of TV sets" in consumers' homes, Oakley admitted, "but there's tremendous growth" anticipated.

HBO and Showtime offer HD channels as a way to add value to their multiplex premium services, rather than as a new revenue stream.

Other networks are taking a longer-term approach to HD.

Although sports and movies head the list of genres that fare best in HD, companies such as ESPN, pay-per-view provider In Demand and premium network Starz Encore Group LLC have yet to disclose any launch plans.

"We have been studying the various technical and production challenges of HDTV, and will look to move forward when we can executive a plan effectively and serve the interests of our fans and our affiliates," ESPN executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches said in a statement last week.

Starz will concentrate on subscription video-on-demand this year, said vice president of technology John Beyler.

"It's not that we won't step out and lead with new technologies, but with high-def, it's not a good business yet," said Beyler. "We won't add HDTV as a loss leader."


Some basic-cable programmers — including A&E Television Networks and National Geographic Channel — are looking ahead by producing HD content, even though they have not announced specific plans for such channels.

"Using tomorrow's technology today gives you a toehold into tomorrow," A&E Television Networks senior vice president of production and broadcast operations Bill Harris said. Even if the company doesn't develop its own HD channel soon, the programming could be syndicated to other networks, such as HDNet.

A&E has already produced 50 hours of HD programming, Harris noted, including episodes of the series 100 Centre Street, a Nero Wolfe
special, the movie The Great Gatsby
and the international special Gold. Its newest HD production is a special on The Grand
, a subject matter that naturally lends itself to the technology, Harris said.

A&E will continue to base its production decisions on picking those shows that would get extra luster from being shot in HD.

"Who knows if you would shoot a game show in high-definition?" Harris asked. "Seeing the pores on the contestants might not be that great in high-definition."

But even Game Show Network hasn't ruled out HD completely.

"We're half-owned by Sony [Corp.]," GSN president Rich Cronin said. Because Sony makes HDTV sets, "there are additional benefits to the company in the long term" if GSN supports the technology.


Deciding whether — and when — to go to HD is a cost-benefit analysis, said Cronin.

"It's much more expensive to produce," he noted, adding that there have to be enough sets in the field to make it worth the cost.

And not every show would benefit from the enhanced picture HD delivers, he acknowledged.

"It depends on the show," Cronin said. "You really don't need to see Dan Rather's face in high-definition."

HDNet, however, has already made its mark in news, producing high-profile news reports from ex-Cable News Network journalist Peter Arnett from Afghanistan and Israel. HD war-zone footage draws an emotional response from viewers, Cuban said.

Cuban decided to send HD cameras into the Middle East for historical reasons, as well. "I wanted there to be a record of it 30 years from now," Cuban said.

While most industry executives don't see an immediate rush to grab HDTV spectrum, others warn that those who ultimately want to make the move to HD shouldn't wait too long.

"Companies that can't afford to make the move or make the move last might find there's not any bandwidth left," HDNet president Cuban said.

HDNet could gain from the incumbent cable programmers' slow start in HD, Cuban predicted.

While no one is making money on HDTV yet, because Cuban is so well-funded, he can afford to wait the several years it's likely to take for the network to become profitable.

And unlike incumbent cable programmers, HDNet doesn't have a large library of analog programming to protect.

Cuban believes major media companies are using the digital copy-protection issue as a delay tactic, so they don't have to invest in converting content to HD or buying new production equipment in a weak economy.

"The No. 1 job of a studio head is to keep his job," Cuban head. "One way to make sure that happens is to make sure there's no change."

HDNet plans to introduce its three new premium services to cable operators later this year.

"We've had a lot of great conversations with every cable MSO," Cuban said. "Their premium customers are the ones who bought HDTVs. They don't want to lose them to DBS."


At present, the ad-supported HDNet is found exclusively on DirecTV. Cuban said he plans to offer syndicated programming from the ad-supported feed to digital broadcasters looking to fill their HD schedule beyond primetime.

HDTV is already available on a nationwide basis via HD-ready direct-broadcast satellite systems from DirecTV and EchoStar Communications Corp.

EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen has said he plans to increase the number of HD channels to 12 after the close of the company's proposed merger with DirecTV Inc. parent Hughes Electronics Corp.

In a past on-air Charlie Chat
with subscribers, Ergen mentioned his interest in adding feeds from Starz and Discovery — as well as PBS and the commercial broadcast networks — once they make national HD feeds available.

Today, EchoStar carries national HD product from HBO and Showtime, as well as a more limited offering from CBS. It also telecasts pay-per-view movies in HD.

DirecTV is expected to announce this week that it will add Showtime as its third HD network. It also carries HDNet and HBO, as well as a limited pay-per-view schedule in the late-night hours when HDNet does not broadcast.

The DBS company is also likely to add the three new feeds from HDNet, Thornton said.