TNT Gets In HD Game — TCM Next?

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TNT-HD will be Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s first standalone HDTV network — but probably not its last.

Last week, Turner officials unveiled plans to finally enter the HDTV market by launching an HDTV-version of top-rated Turner Network Television. TNT-HD, an HDTV simulcast of the "We Know Drama" service, is slated to debut in May, during its coverage of the National Basketball Association Western Conference Finals.

Turner doesn't plan to stop with TNT-HD. A source familiar with the situation said the programmer has also been considering creating HDTV versions of its other networks, such as Turner Classic Movies, possibly as early as sometime this year. There's a need for more family-oriented programming in the HDTV format, and an HDTV-version of TCM could fill that bill.

Turner denied there was any other HDTV channel other than TNT-HD on the drawing board at the moment.

"We fully expect that we will expand our HD offerings beyond TNT-HD. However, there are no specific plans to simulcast any other existing network in HD at this time," a Turner spokeswoman said.

TNT HAD DABBLED

While programmers such as Discovery Communications Inc., Home Box Office, Showtime, ESPN and NBC's Bravo have already rolled out standalone HDTV services, Turner had only dabbled in the format.

TNT's coverage of the 2003 NBA All-Star Game was in high-definition, as will the telecast of this February's all-star contest.

As TNT takes the HD plunge, such other major programmers as MTV Networks, USA Network and the Fox Cable Networks Group have not rolled out standalone HD services.

There are several reasons why Turner bided its time creating an HDTV network.

"Until a few months ago, there was no consumer demand for this," said Turner president of domestic distribution Andy Heller. "Part of the reason there was no consumer demand was because there was no core programming.

"It's expensive. A lot of cable operators had not upgraded their plants. There are limitations to how much the satellite guys can offer today."

But that has changed.

"The theory is, there is enough interest from the consumer and enough interest from our customers, that actually launching one of our core networks in HD is worth the time and effort to do now," Heller said. "The cable guys are actively searching for core product, which they weren't doing six to nine months ago."

NEGOTIATING CLOUT

Because MSOs are looking to bolster their HDTV tiers, it's the perfect time for Turner to launch such a service and use it as a chit in contract negotiations, several network officials said.

"It's a leverage play to get all their other networks renewals at the terms they're looking for," one programmer said.

For example, EchoStar Communications Corp. late last year threatened to drop a number of Turner networks, including Cable News Network and Cartoon Network, when their contracts expired Dec. 31. Both sides are still negotiating.

Sources also claim that Turner has not completely resolved its issues with Comcast Corp. over TNT-Plus — a 10% mid-contract rate increase the programmer collected from everyone else.

Turner can now use TNT-HD as a lure in any discussions it has with EchoStar and Comcast, which is a huge proponent of HDTV, a source said.

"TNT-HD gives Turner a way to align itself with distributors again," another network official said.

During an interview at the Television Critics Association tour, where Turner announced TNT-HD, Turner Entertainment president Mark Lazarus said that the network has "a separate rate card" and is not "tied in with other services."

Lazarus also said that TNT-HD has "already been negotiating with operators" and has distribution deals in place, but declined to identify the MSOs.

Heller, though, was mum about license fees.

"We're not prepared to have any discussion publicly about how we're going to end up getting paid — or not getting paid — for the product in the near term," he said.

"What we're going to try to do is to give our distributors some options on how they want to do [HDTV]," he added. "If they don't want to charge for it, we'll look at doing that. If they do want to charge, we'll look at a different model."

As for deals, Heller said, "It will be carried, on systems in front of people who have HD capabilities, when we launch."

Comcast has taken the position that it will offer subscribers HDTV for free, and it does not want to pay programmers for that content.

Turner views the issue in another way.

"As a practical matter, in the next three years, if you're doing high-def and you're not getting paid for it, this is an expensive proposition," Heller said. "If you don't get paid for it, you're not getting your money back. I do believe that's why a lot of people are hanging back."

NETS ON SIDELINES

MTVN has been studying its HDTV options, but "there's nothing we're contemplating immediately or ready to announce," said president Mark Rosenthal. The programmer wants to be sure HDTV is really "value-added" for its audience, according to Rosenthal.

"When we feel it is, or has become, is probably when we'll make the move forward," he said. "But right now, at least for our particular programming and our particular consumer, the jury's out."

Fox Cable is considering several concepts for a standalone HDTV service, but a spokesman said, "We're not ready to announce anything specific until seeing a certain critical level of demand."

USA IN HD?

USA Network, with its original movies and sports events like the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the Professional Golfers Association, could conceivably roll out a full-fledged HD service. But for USA, HD programming — much less a 24-hour network — isn't in the immediate future.

"We're looking at HD as one of those things that sort of unravels with time," said president Doug Herzog. "We've been talking about it, consumers have been asking about it, so we're getting there."

Last week, Turner touted TNT-HD as the broadest range of dramatic programming ever assembled in the HDTV format, including series, sports, movies and originals. Immediate plans do not call for any specially developed programming for the service.

The network's new dramatic series The Grid, with Dylan McDermott and Julianna Marguiles, will be available in HD. It will premiere this summer.

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