Deaf ear to hi-def

Lack of consumer interest slows TV plans

What if you broadcast in high-definition TV and nobody watched?

That’s the quandary facing network execs over the next eight weeks, as the 1999-2000 season draws to a close and next fall’s schedules start to take shape.

Webheads must soon map out their HDTV programming plans for the coming year. But a growing number of execs say they don’t see a reason to increase the already limited amount of programming produced and aired in the HDTV format.

“There’s no consumer buzz,” said ABC’s Preston Davis, president of broadcast operations and engineering. “If I had to make a decision going forward with more HD programming in 2000-01, based on buzz in the public press, there’s nothing out there to suggest to us any interest in this.”

Even CBS Entertainment prexy Nancy Tellem, whose network has broadcast the most of any web in HDTV, said she hasn’t seen much reaction so far.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” she commented. “Obviously, we’re transmitting in HD, and people are cognizant that the sports events, especially, look much better in HD. But with normal primetime programming, the consciousness has not been raised.”

The issue promises to be one of the hot-button topics next month when the National Assn. of Broadcasters holds its annual confab in Las Vegas. Station managers from all over the country will no doubt be comparing notes with one another to see what, if any buzz, surrounds the changeover to HD.

Using their new digital bandwidth, stations have the choice to broadcast either in HDTV or in multiple standard-definition formats. HDTV boasts a wider aspect ratio, twice the clarity of analog TV and CD-quality sound. As the FCC’s 2006 deadline for transition to digital looms, broadcasters and set manufacturers are pointing fingers over who’s to blame for the sluggish conversion rate so far.

It’s a good old-fashioned chicken-and-egg debate. Depending on your viewpoint, either there aren’t enough digital set owners to make broadcasting much programming worthwhile, or there isn’t enough high-def programming out there to spur new set sales.

The networks argue that they’ve offered a fair amount of product this season for potential HDTV viewers, and that it’s the set manufacturers and retailers who haven’t been able to convince consumers that they need a new $5,000 TV — especially when they need to buy a converter box and antenna just to pick up a signal.

Initial results

The present season is the first in which at least some broadcasters have seriously jumped into the high-definition game.

With the financial backing of Mitsubishi (at $20,000 to $30,000 an hour), CBS aired high-definition versions of most of its primetime sked this season. Just about every scripted series, except shows shot in 16mm (like “Grapevine”) or on videotape (“Cosby”) have made the transition.

Lean on prime

The other major webs have mostly avoided high definition broadcasts in primetime. ABC aired “Monday Night Football,” some theatricals, the Super Bowl and other sporting events this season, while NBC regularly telecasts “The Tonight Show” and some sports in HD. Fox doesn’t have any series regularly airing in high definition.

“I’ve been surprised that our competitors have left the field to us,” said Martin Franks, senior VP of CBS Corp. “There’s part of me that hopes they continue to cede the leadership to us, because at some point, we think we will reap larger economic benefits than we already have.”

Franks said the Eye web made money off the Mitsubishi deal, since HDTV set manufacturers have been spending more ad dollars at the Eye network.

Playing it safe

Still, it’s unlikely that CBS will increase the amount of HDTV in primetime next year, even though there’s still room for growth. In sports, the network will produce the NCAA basketball Final Four, the Masters Tournament and next year’s Super Bowl in HD.

“It’s safe to assume we’re taking a long look at the best package for the NFL,” Franks added.

Over at ABC, the network is in talks to convert some of its primetime lineup to HD — but, Davis said, the network “won’t get ahead of ourselves.” In the meantime, ABC will continue to focus on sports.

“We chose to spend our money on the genre of programming we thought would motivate Joe Six-Pack,” Davis said. ” ‘Monday Night Football’ is one of the crown jewels of broadcasting.”

ABC is in talks with Panasonic to renew its contract to underwrite “Monday Night Football” for another season. For now, Davis says there’s a 50/50 chance ABC will broadcast the franchise in HDTV again next year.

“We’re still trying to figure out how much value each of us got,” he explained. “In Panasonic’s case, was it really worth their time and effort to underwrite this? I’m hoping we get something done, but it’s very early in the discussions.

“It’s tough. We have to do this,” he said, “but I don’t get the sense the audience has any appreciation for what we’re delivering.”

Beyond the networks, a group of stations has formed an HDTV consortium to share original programming for broadcast on their digital channels. And some syndicators, including Tribune (“Earth: Final Conflict” and “Beastmaster”) have distributed programming in HD as well.

“Quite honestly, it doesn’t cost much more to master it to 16 x 9 (the widescreen HDTV format),” said Doug Parker, program/operations manager at WBNS Columbus, Ohio. “Even if it does cost a little more money, you’re putting something on your shelf that you’ll be able to use in the long term.”

In many markets, CBS affils — thanks to their network’s wide primetime HD coverage — have been able to take the lead in digital broadcasting. Stations like WRAL Raleigh-Durham, N.C., for example, broadcasted in multiplex (four signals at once) during early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament and will air the Final Four in HD.

Miffed over content

Almost 120 digital television stations are on the air, although in most cases, those outlets are simply retransmitting their analog channel signal rather than airing tailor-made HDTV product. That has set manufacturers miffed, as they depend on programming to boost sales.

“We need more content from the major networks to drive demand,” said Jeff Joseph, VP of communications at the Consumer Electronics Assn. “It’s frankly a little frustrating.”

Part of the problem at the network and station level is the perception that HDTV remains a frontier for techies. Mention “digital” or “high definition” to most TV creative types and you’ll elicit only yawns. That goes for both network and station programmers.

“We really need to put HDTV programming into the hands of the creative community at this point,” WBNS’ Parker said. “Even if you’re at all concerned about the transmission standard question, it doesn’t matter — you can still start producing programming.”

How many viewers?

No one knows for sure how many viewers have actually watched any HDTV transmission — even the Super Bowl. The number of set owners is too minuscule for Nielsen to break out any data, so broadcasters must rely on shot-in-the-dark estimates.

“I don’t think we’ve seen an HD set in our sample yet,” said Nielsen’s Ann Elliot. She notes that most HD sets have been bought by hotels, businesses and sports bars, where ratings aren’t measured. “It’s just not in enough homes to be able to look at viewership per se.”

Even the number of sets on the market is up for debate. The CEA says that 152,000 HDTV-related “products” have been sold in the U.S. There’s no figure on the number of sets sold capable of picking up over-the-air signals.

Joseph expects an explosion of sales in the next 18 months, as soon as digital must-carry rules for cable are finalized. “We’re doing our part, meeting our commitment,” he said. “We expect and hope that the broadcasters will do the same.”

Standard dilemma

Broadcasters counter that the FCC must rule on a TV receiver performance standard and cable must-carry rules. Also, there are still many concerns that the U.S. digital standard is weaker than the standard chosen by Europe. Many HDTV users have found it nearly impossible to pick up over-the-air signals.

And it doesn’t help that the digital sets now out there can’t be hooked up to cable. (Even if they could, few systems have yet to offer broadcast digital channels in the absence of cable must-carry rules.)

In addition, many observers say HDTV’s early adopters are buying the sets to view DVDs and haven’t even bought the set-top box necessary to receive over-the-air signals.

Informing the publicWRAL promo director Susan Dahlin says stations, set manufacturers and stores need to better inform the public that HDTV exists — and that programming is already on the air.

Just as the Peacock reminded viewers in the early days of color TV that black and white sets were obsolete, CBS runs a bottom-of-the-screen mention plugging Mitsubishi HDTV at the start of its shows.

To supplement that, WRAL has aired a number of quirky local spots describing HDTV.

“One of the biggest tasks we have is informing the public,” Dahlin said. “We’ve got to keep talking about it.”

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