High-Def Ticket

Fox Network, the most resistant to high-def TV, is widening its point of view—literally. Later this year, Fox Sports will begin broadcasting major sporting events in HDTV. That's a big step for Fox. It could also be a big step for News Corp. sibling DirecTV.

The addition of HD sports to Fox's programming roster is expected to help drive a DirecTV carriage deal for a national Fox HD feed. DirecTV currently has an HD deal with CBS, so adding a Fox HD feed is a logical step given the News Corp. ties.

And there's more. Truck manufacturers are already readying four or five trucks for HD production as a result of Fox's announcement. With DirecTV's bandwidth and multiple trucks available, subscribers to the NFL Sunday Ticket could very well be receiving multiple HD games from Fox.

In the third quarter, Fox will broadcast games in the high-definition format known as 720p (industry shorthand for 720 progressive) at a rate of 60 frames per second.

"The common perception in our industry is that 1080-line interlace is the better high-definition system because it provides more lines or resolution," says Fox Sports Chairman David Hill. "However, I am truly convinced that 720p is the far superior format. Our viewers are going to love all three of our sports and their signature live events broadcast in this system." (Fox has already announced it will begin airing its prime time shows in HDTV this fall. Other broadcast networks already do so.)

Up to now, the network has been comfortable with its 480-line interlace, widescreen broadcasts. But they leave viewers in visual limbo: HDTV sets show more of the event because the picture is wider, but picture quality at 480i isn't as crisp as in high-def. That will change, of course, this summer.

It's one thing to see a sitcom in high-def, another to see a football game. There is no denying the power of HD sports: Sharper images neatly transplant the viewer out of the living room and into the stadium, minus the obnoxious drunks.

Fox's sports stable contains National Football League NFC games, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR races. The network has Super Bowl XXXIX next season, along with the baseball's All-Star Game and World Series and NASCAR's Pepsi 500 race. Which event gets HD first won't be known until next month. The first event could be either the All-Star game or the Pepsi 500, held in July.

It was only last June that Fox Networks Group President and CEO Tony Vinciquerra told BROADCASTING & CABLE the network considered 480p sports broadcasts the best way to get quality productions on the air. At the time, producing in 720p would have required production compromises. Since then, HDTV production gear has evolved. Just as important, DirecTV became Fox's sister company.

Fox's HD move is good news for suppliers of sports production trucks. Fox joins CBS, NBC, ABC, ESPN, HDNet, and soon TNT as a nationally delivered network producing and broadcasting sporting events in HDTV. As more events demand HD trucks, manufacturers will find it easier to justify building them.

"Our latest-generation digital trucks are designed to go HD in relatively short order," says Jerry Gepner, president of NMT. "And we're going to build two HD trucks a year for the next couple of years.

He expects that, by year-end, there will be 18 or 19 HD trucks in the country available for rental. "We see this as a wonderful growth opportunity," he says. "It's something we've anticipated and we're ready for."

The 5 million-plus consumers with HDTV are ready, too.