If You Broadcast in HD, Fans Will Come

Baseball and broadcasting seem as American as apple pie. So for Cleveland Indians fans, something seemed wrong three years ago when all of the team's games shifted over to a regional Fox cable network.

This year, baseball is back on the Cleveland airwaves. WKYC, the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate, will broadcast 20 Indians games over the air—this time in high-definition.

“I think it's huge,” says General Manager Brooke Spectorsky. “One of the problems with cable exclusives is, they don't let the casual fan tune in or find the game because it's in a higher cable tier. But we're an NBC affiliate with very high viewership, and we'll be able to promote the games and reach new fans.”

WKYC is also providing the production facilities for SportsTime Ohio, the new regional cable sports network run by the Indians that will show most of the team's 162 games.

Sports is considered the ultimate driver wooing consumers to HD. The push has been ferocious this year, including NBC's 302 hours of high-definition coverage of the Winter Olympics. But there are only a few million HD-equipped sets, and so stations are just starting to experiment with the new format.

WKYC isn't the only local broadcaster with HD baseball. WCIU Chicago will broadcast 13 White Sox games and five Cubs games in HD this year. WGN, Tribune's Chicago powerhouse co-owned with the Cubs, produces the games for WCIU and has been broadcasting Cubs, White Sox and Bulls games in HD since 2004. “Viewers were asking us why our games weren't in HD like the WGN telecasts,” says Neal Sabin, executive VP of WCIU owner Weigel Broadcasting. This year, they will be.

Another newcomer to HD broadcasts is Tribune-owned KPLR St. Louis. The station will broadcast about 10 Cardinals games in HD (another 20 games will be in HD on Fox Sports Net Midwest).

Fans of the Philadelphia Phillies will enjoy their second season of HD broadcasts. “We were getting e-mails the season before asking us to go HD,” says Perry Casciato, program director for WPSG, the CBS-owned UPN station. The station will air 24 home games in HD this season.

In a reverse of the WKYC/SportsTime Ohio relationship, Comcast SportsNet will handle all the production duties for the WPSG telecasts. “This really helps us serve the viewer because it's a very strong product,” says Casciato.

There was another benefit as well: WPSG is channel 57 on the UHF dial, but because of its Phillies HD deal, Casciato says, Comcast gave it a better position on its systems.

In Cleveland, WKYC was scheduled at press time to celebrate the return of Indians games to the airwaves with a 90-minute HD pre-game show April 7; the network will continue to offer 30 minutes of HD pre-game coverage before each game it airs.

Because WKYC has a long history in sports production, the station put together a proposal to dedicate one of its HD control rooms and a studio to the network. Assistant Director of Baseball Operations Steve Warren says the room's Sony MVS8000 HD production switcher, EVS server-based replay gear, and Chyron Duet graphics equipment replicates the typical production-truck environment. Twelve HD cameras at Jacobs Field, the Indians' home ballpark, are connected via fiber cable to send the signals back to the station.

Fans will also have a chance to see road games in HD on WKYC. Most regional cable networks don't broadcast road games in high-def because of the additional costs and technical challenges. WKYC, which will rent a production truck from Lyon Video in Columbus, Ohio, believes the investment is worth it.

The station sees its comparatively early push to HD as a way to drive the technology. “We are really wound up about this,” says Spectorsky. “We've been able to do four Cleveland Browns pre-season games, but to be involved with 158 games has the station energized and excited.”

That energy should come in very handy just about now. On April 7, the station is scheduled to flip the switch on a full HD conversion. All local news and talk-show content will be shot, produced and delivered in high-definition.