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Comcast SportsNet goes HD

As if Michael Jordan doesn't look good enough on TV. Beginning in January, selected home games of his Washington Wizards, as well as of the Washington Capitols, Philadelphia Flyers and Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers, will appear in HDTV on Comcast SportsNet. And, once baseball season starts next year, selected Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies home games also will be available in HD.

The network has just sent out a bid for an HD production vehicle that it expects will cost in the neighborhood of $7.5 million dollars.

Comcast SportsNet President and CEO Jack Williams says it has been his goal since the network came on-air to be cutting edge. Comcast Cable's recent announcement that it will expand delivery of HDTV content to its cable subscribers in the Washington and Baltimore areas gave the HD effort the momentum it needs to become reality.

"Comcast believes that we'll be a pretty big draw," says Williams. "It's just a matter of time before everyone moves into HDTV, so it's a question of whether you're going to do it now or later. And I certainly think it's going to help drive the business. Anyone who does not subscribe to our service and then has the opportunity to get it in HD will want it."

Right now, approximately 3,000 Comcast customers have HDTV sets. HD programming by Comcast Sports Network and other networks (such as HBO) is believed to be one way to stop high-end customers who purchase HD sets from switching to direct-broadcast satellite.

And Williams thinks it will have other benefits as well. "I think it will have some appeal to advertisers. But the big business is, we're leading the forefront in being state- of-the-art."

Plans are to carry 200 sporting events in HD during 2003, a mix of basketball and hockey, he says. The network will initially have one HD production vehicle that will rotate among Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia for coverage.

"We're going to try to do half the games in each marketplace in high definition," adds Williams. "Down the road, we would like to add another truck, but we'll take it one step at a time."

Comcast SportsNet Director of Operations Bob Ayars will head up the buildout of the vehicle. The decisions on choosing gear, he says, will be made after NAB, which means this year's show will be a particularly fun one for him.

"I have a reason to look at every toy that is out there," he says. "There are definitely a couple of camera manufacturers, like Sony and Thomson, who are at the forefront. And I'll also look at graphics systems for HD, which should be outstanding for the types of animations and lower-third graphics they'll deliver."

The network will simulcast the two productions, and, according to Ayars, what the standard-definition audience will see will be in the same 4:3 aspect ratio that they see now. That production will be downconverted from the HD production.

"We know there are some changes we have to make in the way we do things," he says. "Right now, we have the score bug in the corner; that will suddenly seem a little odd in the middle of the HD picture. So we know we have to reformat some graphics and things like that. But everyone is excited about this, and everyone who has seen the pictures from a live event are really jazzed about being able to see every detail."

For graphics, Ayars's wish would be to originate the graphics in HD and then downconvert. "That would be the best look. Because we're initially doing this for our own home games, we don't have to worry about being on the road in someone else's truck without our own graphics equipment. I know some people are upconverting their regular Chyron Infinit look, but, to give everyone the best possible product, we're going to look for HD graphics equipment."

Ayars says two trends have helped make this move easier: The cost of the equipment has come down, and integration is easier.

"It's very feasible to do this economically," he says. "It really isn't much more expensive than a full-blown traditional truck would have been. And delivery is a lot easier, especially with having a fiber delivery system to deliver our signal to the headends."

Comcast SportsNet will join Action Sports in Portland, Ore., and MSG in New York as the only regional cable sports networks offering HDTV.