Speed Readies HD Net

While many networks have taken their position on the track in recent weeks, Speed plans to enter the high-definition race next February during its coverage from Daytona Speedway.

Speed in HD plans to come out of the gate with more than 100 hours of NASCAR coverage from the Daytona Speedweeks, which begin next year on Feb. 7 and lead up to the 50th anniversary of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.

The initial native HD output will include Duel Days, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, NASCAR RaceDay as part of the largest output of programming the network will deliver from the famed Florida race track, according to Speed senior vice president of production and network operation Rick Miner.

The changes on the small screen will be accompanied by amelioration on Speedtv.com, which will re-launch in early February. The improved site will feature more timely and enhanced motor sports news and information delivered through a more navigable, wide-screen format. In addition, there will be interactive, social networking and customization features. Registered users to insider.speedtv.com will receive a sneak peek in early January.

In addition to its season-long, at-track coverage of NASCAR, with programs including the aforementioned NASCAR RaceDay, Trackside, NASCAR Victory Lane, Tradin’ Paint, NASCAR Live!, NASCAR Performance and Go or Go Home, Speed wants to bring other racing series and special events to viewers in HD in 2008.

That won’t necessarily come inexpensively or easily. Shooting in the high-definition format can increase production costs by as much as 25%. Moreover, there is a lot more equipment involved for auto races than other sports, according to Miner.

“You don’t need nearly as many cameras or fiber for a baseball or a hockey game. With NASCAR, 20 cameras are used to provide all the angles viewers see,” said Miner. “For road races like the American Le Mans [Series] or [The Rolex] Grand American [Sports Car Series], you need 20 cameras and so many more feet of fiber just to cover the course.”

Miner said Speed has already been revving up for HD. “All of the Nextel Cup races are shot in HD by Fox, TNT and ABC/ESPN, as are the qualifiers and practice runs that we cover,” said Miner. “We had to take those feeds and down-convert them [to the standard-definition format] because we didn’t have a distribution outlet for them.”

Additionally, in a move that began earlier this summer, Speed is commissioning its original programming in the 16:9 HD aspect ratio.

To that end, Speed will be ready to launch new seasons of its automotive and motorcycle lifestyle programming in HD, including Pinks, Pinks All Out and Super Bikes!

While older episodes of these and other shows could be remastered to the HD format over time, not everything will be given an autoshop makeover.

“I don’t think we want to alter the look of a race shot in 1973,” he said. “Some of the historical footage just wouldn’t look right.”

He does believe, though, that the HD version of the network will look right to viewers.

“There is no sport that’s more technological than motor sports. The action, the colors and particularly the night races are really going to pop,” he said. “The more horizontal look, like with hockey or soccer, really works well for auto racing. You can get a much better feel, for instance, of how a passing sequence begins.”

Miner added that race fans are also very likely to be early technology adopters. “If you’re a fan of Formula I racing, you’re inherently interested in technology. These guys have HD sets and all their movies are Blue Ray or HD DVDs.”

Mike Biard, senior vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for Fox Cable Networks, agreed, stating that the programmer has been receiving positive feedback from distributors.

“Sports really pops in HD, but there is only a short list of national networks in HD,” he said. “We’ve had discussions with our affiliates and they believe Speed in HD can help be an HD-driver.”

While not discussing any rate-card specifics, Biard hopes the new service offering will also result in an upgrade for the standard-format service.

“For Speed, it’s not about a lack of carriage,” he said, noting that the channel is distributed by all major distributors. “The issue is the level of carriage. Speed is on [various] digital packages and we’d like to see it get more expanded basic. By offering Speed in HD, we hope to close that gap a bit.”

As for plans to launch FX in the HD format, Biard said things were moving along, but shied away from providing a specific time frame, other than to say it was likely to debut by year-end. “Moving the network to HD is a natural extension,” he said. “FX already provides its original programming in the high-definition format.