Fox Says Yes to High-Def

The Fox Network plans to offer 50% of its prime time programming in HDTV once it builds out its network operations to handle 720p. That's expected to be completed around Jan. 1, 2004.

"Once we build the infrastructure out in 720p," says Fox Networks Group President and CEO Tony Vinciquerra, "we'll begin broadcasting content if it's available in 720p."

Since the early days of the DTV transition Fox has served as the poster child of the "DTV doesn't mean HDTV" movement. A lack of viewers coupled with the high cost of outfitting stations for high-definition made the network reluctant to invest in an infrastructure that showed no promise of a return on investment. But, Vinciquerra says, the network sees some momentum that makes HD worth the investment.

"Until very recently, we haven't seen the impetus behind the digital transition to really warrant making the kind of investment necessary to go to this level," says Vinciquerra. "But because [FCC Chairman Michael] Powell and [Rep. Billy] Tauzin have gotten behind the DTV effort so strongly, it finally seems to be gaining traction. For the first time, we're optimistic that the transition is going to happen."

Announcement of the move was made in a letter from News Corp. President and COO Peter Chernin to FCC Media Bureau Chief W. Kenneth Ferree. The letter was in response to a request by Ferree on May 21 for the networks to provide updates on the digital transition. Vinciquerra says the network had been contemplating announcing 720p plans for a few months and the letter provided a perfect opportunity.

Which Fox programs will be broadcast in HD remains to be determined. Current programs in 480p widescreen like 24
and The Bernie Mac Show seem logical candidates, and Vinciquerra couldn't rule out a 720p version of American Idol. It really depends on whether it makes sense to outfit the studio for HDTV capabilities.

Prime time programming aside, many HD viewers are waiting for Fox Network 720p sports broadcasts. Vinciquerra says there are currently no plans to make the move from 480i widescreen production to 720p.

The network, he says, believes that the 480p broadcasts of sports are the best way to sell digital television sets because people get to see an uncompromised widescreen production. "We think the way to sell these TV sets is to put the best product you can put on the air, and that's the quality in the content of the product. It's not the difference between 480p and 720p."

Chernin's letter mentioned the broadcast flag, which broadcasters are calling for so that they can feel comfortable that their content is protected from digital piracy. Earlier this year, CBS said it was contemplating not broadcasting HDTV content next season unless there was agreement on the broadcast-flag issue. The network has since said it will broadcast in HD but still considers the broadcast flag an important issue.

Vinciquerra says, "We think the broadcast flag is absolutely necessary for the business of digital television to succeed and, if there is no way to protect our copyrights, it's going to be a very difficult business."

He adds that the network reserves its right to take another look at whether the broadcast-flag issue would prevent 720p broadcast but, at this time, the network is committed to HD.