TNT Joins the HDTV Gang of Networks

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Later this month, TNT will launch TNT HD, becoming the first general entertainment cable network to go hi def. But the exact programming and date remain up in the air, literally.

That's because TNT will launch with the opening of the NBA Western Conference finals, sometime between May 17 and May 19, with the site still to be determined. But everything else about TNT's HD launch is nailed down.

"We said: 'Let's get started with the NBA as our launching platform and use the NBA playoffs to promote the launch of TNT HD," said Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Entertainment Networks.

The launch of TNT in high definition marks another milestone in HD's evolution. Cable networks built around sports (ESPN, HD Net, INHD) and movies (HBO, Showtime, Starz) have been early HD adopters, as have those offering documentary fare, like Discovery HD.

But general-entertainment networks, like TNT, USA and Lifetime, have stayed off the HD radar screen, save for a few special sporting events.

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That began to change last year, Lazarus said, as Turner executives began looking at HD. "We surveyed the industry and surveyed consumer adoption," he said. "We looked at what our technical needs would be – trucks for sports, incremental costs – and we looked at the facilities to start to invest in the technological side with HD capability. We looked at the consumer environment, what products drive our networks, and where DBS and cable providers find value to drive their businesses."

After doing the NBA All Star Game in 2003, and working through the logistics late last year, TNT decided to pull the trigger, starting with this year's NBA Western Conference finals.

The network has retrofitted one production truck, which it will use to shoot all the games in that series in HD. "We will take [the] studio on the road," he said.

In June, Turner South and TBS will begin producing home games of the Atlanta Braves in HD. Lazarus also said it's possible TNT will work with broadcast partner NBC in carrying some NASCAR events in HD.

Turner is in the midst of changing its studio facilities in Atlanta to HD, Lazarus said, and next fall, TNT will carry both its studio programming and NBA games in HD. "We will convert the main studio, which has the NBA set, into HD right after the conference finals," he said, noting that all the cameras are already HD.

"TNT HD will be a fully simulcast network," Lazarus said, so the entire programming linup will be in HD. TNT's movies and series will be a combination of content already shot in HD or up-converted to the 1080i format TNT will use.

HD Productions Underway

A number of TNT productions have been or are being shot in HD, Lazarus said, including TNT's original series, The Grid, which will premiere this summer; a Steven Spielberg production slated for next summer; and an original movie on the life of Evil Knievel. Additionally, when Alias appears next year, it will be in HD.

Part of what drove the decision to launch HD stemmed from steadily declining costs, Lazarus said. "There is a cost to convert, and to convert [to HD] while editing," he said. Costs to shoot in HD are also higher, but on an overall percentage basis, it's not that big, Lazarus said.

"It provides a product for operators to help them grow their businesses," Lazarus said. "We've had very positive responses, and we expect to make announcements very soon," regarding operator carriage.

The network has prepared a bevy of marketing materials, including 10- and 20-second image spots, logos, a monthly highlight sheet, ad slicks, press releases, Web site banner ads and images of key programming for its affiliates.

"We're going to utilize TNT to get the message out," Lazarus said. "TNT HD stands for both hi definition and high drama."