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Sports Tackle High-Def

The National Football League better be ready for its close-up. When the regular season kicks off Sept. 9, the four networks that carry pro football—ABC, Fox, CBS and ESPN—will air games in high definition, the crystal-clear digital transmission that captures football's crunching hits and acrobatic catches in all their dramatic glory.

Fox will air up to six games per week. CBS plans three HD games weekly; ESPN's and ABC's Sunday- and Monday-night games, respectively, will be in high-def. Collectively, this is five times more HD than last season, nearly 175 games. Plus, weekly college-football games and some postseason baseball, including the World Series, will be added to the mix.

The caveat: They aren't playing to packed houses.

By most estimates, there are 9 million HD sets in the market, a sliver of the 110 million total U.S. TV households. The Yankee Group estimates that another 7 million HD sets could be sold in 2005. "It is a small audience," says Ken Aagaard, senior vice president of operations for CBS Sports, "but it is vocal and upscale."

But can it drive HD penetration beyond early adapters?

The networks, meantime, face serious price concerns. HD telecasts cost up to 20% more than conventional productions; some networks are courting sponsors to make up the difference, like Sony's underwriting CBS's NFL games.

A second concern: HD telecasts require special equipment, such as production trucks and cameras. The networks lament that there isn't enough equipment to meet demand, especially trucks, which they lease from vendors. "We've sucked them out of the market," says Tony Vinciquerra, president and CEO, Fox Networks Group.

Admittedly, football, auto racing, even bass fishing look better in HD. All the Big Four broadcast networks do some sports production in the format, and ESPN and TNT have cloned HD channels. DirecTV, the exclusive provider of the NFL's out-of-market package, will offer 100 NFL games in high-def this season.

Still, when HDTV owners click on their sets, they'll find some standard-definition telecasts. The reason is multifaceted. HD is a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. Consumers have been slow to buy the pricey TV sets. Networks have been reluctant to invest in HD without sufficient viewers. Equipment manufacturers want to wait for network demand to build up.

Such divisions kept Fox on the sidelines. "Until six or eight months ago, we didn't see the market understanding what HD or digital TV was," says Vinciquerra. This fall, some of Fox's prime time entertainment shows will air in HD for the first time.

One reason may be the drop in set prices, coupled with the hope that consumers will ante up. (A small set costs around $1,000; a wide-screen plasma TV could carry a $10,000 price tag.) Retailers expect healthy sales this holiday season. Major sports events, like the college bowl season and the Super Bowl, should stimulate purchases.

Producing games in HD, however, is a logistical challenge.

The truck shortage is a big factor. Networks must send the ones they have crisscrossing the country to as many events as possible. In a three-month period, the truck ESPN uses for its Sunday-night baseball games hopscotched from California to Florida, Texas to Baltimore, Arizona to Boston.

Schedulers pore over the calendar, trying to coordinate high-profile games with available trucks. "We've gone from playing checkers to three-dimensional chess," says ESPN Vice President of Strategic Planning Bryan Burns. He's had to pass on great match-ups, such as a series between the New York Yankees and New York Mets, because ESPN couldn't get a truck in place.

National Mobile Television (NMT), NEP Supershooters and New Century Productions (NCP) are trying to keep up with demand. "The interest in HD trucks has become a tidal wave since April," says Mike Werteen, NCP director of production and marketing. "We're booked up for 2005, especially because we have a long-term agreement with ESPN." Most deals typically run one to five years.

By December, there will be about 25 HD trucks on the road, and NEP CFO Jim Milano expects that number to hit 40 by the end of 2005. It takes about five months to build an HD vehicle. But new equipment can present network crews with technological headaches. "We've had some devices with serial number 00001, fresh off the production line," says Burns. "They're not always vetted and tested."

NMT President Jerry Gepner says market pressure means his vehicles have to work. "If the trucks don't perform," he says, "our customers can always go somewhere else." Manufacturers, though, are reluctant to put more HD trucks on the road until they have lease commitments. Cost is a major obstacle. An HD truck runs roughly 40% more than a standard vehicle, around $10 million. Most of the HD vehicles today are mammoth 53-foot trucks loaded with expensive cameras, flashy graphics gear and expansive audio boards. Such equipment is suited to ABC's Monday Night Football, not a regional sporting event.

To accommodate regional needs, scaled-down HD models are being developed. They cost about half the souped-up version. Fox's FSN favors "smart trucks," which offer four feeds: two HD signals and two SD. These less expensive vehicles could fuel the regional HD explosion and even more network production.

That means transmission costs will rise, network production facilities will have to be overhauled, and more staff may be needed. Still, these added costs aren't translating into additional revenue.

Come winter, the situation may get even more chaotic, with basketball, football and NASCAR. Juggling the productions and new equipment awes even the most seasoned producers.

"I've been in this business 35 years, and it has never been this crazy," says CBS's Aagaard. "We're just trying to figure out how we're going to put this together."