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The Pictures Are the Story

This was the holiday season when analysts predicted that sales of high-definition televisions would take another sharp jump—until the financial meltdown. Now, with retailers bracing for slow holidays and consumers cutting back on big-ticket purchases, high-definition TV sales may be more uncertain.

But the slowdown isn't stopping TV programmers from upgrading to HD or debuting new networks to bulk up distributors' HD menus. And the Consumer Electronics Association maintains that sales of all electronics will increase 3.5% in the fourth quarter, including HD (see story, p. 18).

Though hi-def sales face a tough sales environment, distribution has made a significant leap in the last year. Penetration numbers vary across the industry, but Nielsen Media Research, which offers conservative estimates, says that 22.2% of the 114.5 million U.S. TV households had HDTV in October 2008, up from 12.1% the year before.

Programmers and networks—from PBS with its stunning HD series Nature from WNET New York, to the venerable game show The Price Is Right on CBS—hope their array of content will entice more consumers to upgrade. They tout the improved picture and sound of HDTV. As the roster of HD programming continues to grow, here is a look at some recent innovations:

ESPN: Too Much to Do

High-definition TV set owners regularly tick off sports as the top attraction on HD, and TV's leading sports brand, ESPN, is upping its high-definition sports lineup to feed the demand. This year alone, ESPN has launched three hi-def channels, but mainly for logistic reasons, it can't show everything in HD. But it's trying.

In late August, just in time for college football season, ESPN launched ESPNU HD, its fourth domestic high-definition channel. That followed the March debut of ESPN News HD, with round-the-clock highlights in HD.

In June, the company debuted an international hi-def channel, ESPN HD Australia, with content produced in ESPN's Bristol, Conn., headquarters and piped back to Australia via fiber.

This year, between its four U.S. hi-def channels—ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD, ESPN News HD and ESPNU HD—the sports giant will broadcast more than 1,100 events in HD. For the 2008-09 college basketball season alone, ESPN plans to air 400 games this season in HD. That is a huge jump from the 100 hi-def events ESPN carried in 2003, the year it launched ESPN HD.

Improvements in HD technology and lower equipment prices have fueled an uptick in HD production across the TV industry. But sports presents a unique challenge, says Bryan Burns, ESPN's VP of strategic business planning and development. Unlike studio shows or scripted programs on a soundstage, sporting events are all produced in the field. “We do so many live events in so many different places, it is hard to get them all in HD,” Burns says.

ESPN utilizes 58 hi-def-capable production trucks to power its telecasts. The fleet is a significant increase from 2003, when only three HD trucks were available. But, Burns says, only about half of the trucks currently on the road are HD-ready, limiting the network's ability to provide more HD coverage. (ESPN typically shares the HD trucks with other networks that air HD sports, including CBS and NBC, on different days.)

The company now needs to build up distribution for its newest HD channels. So far, ESPN will not release carriage figures for ESPNU HD, while ESPN News HD reaches about 7.5 million homes. By contrast, ESPN HD counts 22 million subscribers, and ESPN2 HD is available in 20 million homes.

Bad Boys in HD

Just two months after Fox's popular reality show Cops debuted its 21st season in high-definition, its sister crime program Jail on MyNetworkTV is also upgrading to HD. Both shows are produced by Langley Productions, headed by Cops creator John Langley and his son Morgan.

Jail, which runs Tuesday nights on MyNetworkTV, will broadcast its remaining eight episodes this season in high-definition. The show follows individuals through the criminal process, from arrest to booking to lockup.

The intensity of the events lends itself to HD, says executive producer Morgan Langley. “Quite simply, the show looks fantastic in HD,” he says.

Langley is also producing a third hi-def show, Street Patrol, featuring footage that doesn't make it into Cops, for MyNetworkTV.

The company faced some major challenges moving to HD. Cops and Jail deploy crews all over the country to shoot action, with Cops utilizing 10 crews and Jail using four teams. To ensure that the far-flung crews would come back with consistent quality footage, Langley needed to train all of the cameramen and technicians to use the new HD equipment, including cameras and editing tools.

Along with learning new equipment, moving to HD requires some changes in production, including framing shots differently for widescreen and making sure lighting isn't too dark. “It took months before all the guys in the field adjusted,” Langley says.

The HD Price Is Right

When The Price Is Right kicked off its 37th season this fall, host Drew Carey looked a little sharper standing in front of The Big Wheel. In September, the daytime show quietly upgraded to high-definition production, giving its games, models and even Carey a crisper, more vibrant widescreen look.

The Price Is Right is only the third daytime or syndicated game show to move to hi-def. Sony Pictures Television's Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy made the transition two years ago.

Fremantle North America, which produces The Price Is Right for CBS, moved to HD in September as part of a two-step upgrade on the show. When former host Bob Barker retired two seasons ago, Fremantle refurbished the set and recorded the music in stereo. Shortly after, the show was upgraded again for HD.

“Our show is like a circus with enormous amounts of color and a big stage with different looks in the course of an hour,” says Executive Producer Syd Vinnedge. “It really takes advantage of high-definition.”

The HD upgrade involved a new switcher board, monitors, editing equipment and cameras, adding up to more than a $1 million investment, insiders say. Sony and CBS Television Distribution invested more than $4 million to upgrade Wheel and Jeopardy to HD.

To accommodate HD, The Price Is Right had to adapt a few features. For example, promo video for prize vacations might not be in HD. Rather than run a lower-quality video, producers opt to show still images. And game show sets get nicks and scuff marks viewers wouldn't have noticed before. Now the show's set has to be highly maintained.

A Six Pack for Discovery

As more consumers hook up to high-definition television, Discovery Networks is intensifying its efforts to offer the most HD fare of any programmer.

Discovery now offers six hi-def channels, more than any other cable programmer. Its lineup includes HD Theater, its first HD channel, which is stocked with original programs, and simulcasts of the five most popular Discovery networks: Discovery HD, Animal Planet HD, TLC HD, Science HD and Planet Green HD.

According to Discovery Channel GM John Ford, big specials like Frozen Planet, a documentary series from the BBC about the Arctic and Antarctica, and series Time Warp, where footage is shot at 10,000 frames per second (standard is 30 frames per second) and slowed down in super-slow-motion, take advantage of HD's capabilities to deliver stunningly crisp images.

“High-definition enables our content to be even more vivid and immersive,” Ford says. His networks will air 100 original hours in the fourth quarter and another 125 premiere hours in first quarter 2009. That is twice as much as the year before. “From nature to exploration, history, science and technology, they are tailor-made for HD and consumers love it.”

As distributors have improved their bandwidth compression to deliver more HD channels, Discovery has grabbed more real estate, much like the company did in the early 1990s when digital cable was first developing. “We go for shelf space early,” says Jennifer Dangar, senior VP of domestic distribution. “We get out early and use our content to drive the value of our networks to distributors.”

Discovery also moved to HD production in the early 2000s, before most of its competitors, sometimes giving its producers extra money to buy or rent HD equipment. The company's first hi-def channel, HD Theater, launched in 2002 and now reaches 20 million homes, about the same as Discovery HD, TLC HD and Animal Planet HD.

Palladia, an HD Music Experience

While musical performances are in short supply on MTV and VH1, their sister high-definition channel Palladia is picking up the mantle with a new identity and a music-centric programming lineup.

Palladia showcases concerts, music festivals and music-themed movies. It also repeats performance series like CMT Crossroads or VH1 Storytellers as well as big MTV Networks events, including the MTV Video Music Awards. All of Palladia's programming is produced in HD or upconverted for hi-def delivery.

MTVN first launched the hi-def service two years ago with the name MHD. Two months ago, however, the company jettisoned that name for its new brand, Palladia. The former name “felt too heavy, like more MTV-branded than a multichannel endeavor,” says Tom Calderone, the general manager of VH1 who also heads up Palladia.

Reaching about 12 million HD homes on most major cable, satellite and telco systems, Palladia marks MTVN's first major foray into an HD music channel. The company has been producing most of its big specials, including the VMAs and CMT Music Awards, in hi-def for about five years, but doesn't transmit a hi-def feed for its music channels, such as MTV, VH1 or CMT. The company's reality shows are not produced in HD.

With Palladia, MTVN sees an opportunity to showcase programming already available in HD. Many concerts, for example, are produced in HD and can be acquired from production companies or record labels. Similarly, music-themed movies including Pink Floyd: The Wall and Tommy are digitally remastered with HD-quality picture and sound.

“We have an opportunity to dig into a huge library of HD content out there,” Calderone says. “And then we like to spice it up with programs from our linear channels.”

The network's advertisers include big-name electronic companies such as Bose and Apple, car companies and movie studios. According to Calderone, Palladia typically sells its ad time on its own, rather than packaging it with other MTVN channels.

Palladia has value, Calderone says, because it is the rare TV venue for HD music and performances: “We're winning over fans because you can't get this from any other service or platform.”