This summer, producers of the new series Aerial America will wing their way across the United States as part of an ambitious plan to film all 50 states in high-definition. Aerial America, which has already completed filming California and Hawaii, is only one of several high-profile original series shot in HD that the Smithsonian Channel hopes will make it a major player in the HD space.
“High-definition programming has been part of our DNA since day one,” network executive vice president of programming and production David Royle said. “It makes us perfectly positioned to take advantage of the HD tsunami that has been rushing through our industry. Unlike a lot of channels that have been rolling out with a lot of old retreads — standard-definition programming that has been upconverted, which is not what viewers want — everything we commission and put into production is true HD.”
Since launching on DirecTV in September 2007 as a linear HD service, the network has expanded its distribution to include Dish Network, Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV and Charter Communications. Those four providers currently have about 34 million digital basic subscribers and about 7 million HD homes, According to Smithsonian Networks general manager Tom Hayden.
The network also has a video-on-demand offering. The HD VOD service is scheduled to reach about 14 million homes by the end of 2008, and the standard-definition version is projected to reach about 20 million homes, Hayden said.
While National Geographic Channel is already available in HD and Discovery offers a large bouquet of high-def services, Hayden credited his network’s emphasis on high quality original programming in HD and the Smithsonian brand as key differentiators and factors in its ability to gain significant distribution relatively quickly.
Hayden also noted that Smithsonian’s goal at launch was to have 80% of its programming produced in HD and that about 95% of its lineup is now created in high-def.
Some 75% of all the programming was commissioned or co-produced by the network, with another 25% acquired, Royle said.
In addition to Aerial America, originals scheduled to debut later this year include SoundRevolution, a music series hosted by Morgan Freeman; The Vampire Princess, a special on the true inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula; and an ambitious BBC co-production about Stonehenge.
Hayden added: “We’ve been very fortunate to be associated with one of the premier brands in the world. The Smithsonian consistently ranks among the top three to five consumer brands in the country.”
That brand has also helped the fledgling service, which has limited budgets, partner with a number of celebrities and some of the world’s top documentary producers.
Royle said Stories From the Vault with actor Tom Cavanaugh and the upcoming series with Freeman are examples of how Smithsonian has “been able to obtain real celebrity power even though as a new channel we are not always able to pay the largest salaries. We’ve been able to pull in some big names because people like Cavanaugh and Freeman are very attracted to the quality of what we are doing and the brand.”
The network is also attracting top producers, according to Royle.
“We had this show, Nature Tech, which beat out [Discovery Channel and] BBC’s Planet Earth series for the Best Limited Series at the prestigious Jackson Hole Wildlife Festival in 2007,” Royle said. “It was an example of how we like to push what HD can do to the limits.”
The upcoming co-production with the BBC on Stonehenge is an illustration of the kind of production alliances that the channel is forging. “The Smithsonian channel co-sponsored the first dig inside Stonehenge in 50 years,” Royle said. “It is a sign of how much credibility the Smithsonian brings to the world of exploration and non-fiction.”
The network is also looking to expand the distribution of its HD content into other platforms and markets. It recently concluded a deal to release make some of its programming available on DVD. Although the first release, scheduled for September, is likely to be in regular DVD format, Hayden expects its programming to soon be released in the Blu-ray format.
Likewise, it is close to wrapping up a deal to make content available on iTunes. “As soon as they are ready for HD content, we’ll be there,” Hayden said.
Smithsonian is also exploring international markets. Off the Fence, an independent producer and distributor of primetime documentaries, handles European distribution. The network is also selling content to High Fidelity in Canada, which carries Smithsonian programming on its suite of four HD channels.
Hayden hopes to expand its relationship with High Fidelity to branded blocks and ultimately a Smithsonian channel. “That is probably the model we’ll use internationally,” said Hayden, who hopes the network’s first international channels will bow in 2009.