Fuzzy forecast for high-def lift-off

Insufficient p'gramming hinders progress

For years now, experts have touted the arrival of high-def TV as the Next Big Thing.

And the way things are going, five years from now high def might still be more promise than delivery. For starters, high-def is supposed to electrify people, enticing them with in-your-face sports events and eye-popping movie spectacles.

But how much sports, and how many movies? Phillip Swann, prexy of TVPredictions.com, says there’s not enough HD programming right now to “satisfy someone who’s spent thousands of dollars buying all of that high-def equipment. Until there’s more programming, it’ll be harder to spread positive word of mouth.”

On the one hand, the broadcast networks are producing more of their primetime and sports schedules in high-def; that’s a plus. But among the networks that would love to send out programming in high-def 24 hours a day, the pickings are somewhat meager: HD takes up so much bandwidth that cable and satellite companies have a hard time accommodating more than a few.

NBC Universal created a catchall network, Universal HD, as a mix of entertainment and sports programs from networks owned by NBC U such as USA, Sci Fi Channel and Bravo. Cable operators just couldn’t make room for separate HD networks from the stable of program services owned by NBC U.

The 24/7 networks that show up on most cable ops that have embraced digital technology are Discovery HD Theater, ESPN HD, HBO HD and Showtime HD, all of which consist mostly of high-tech repeats of programming available on the parent network. (The ESPN/ESPN HD transmission is a simulcast if the event is live.)

Detractors keep pointing to problems with high-def. But one of the boosters, Josh Bernoff, senior analyst with Forrester Research, predicts the modest figure of 10 million people who owned high-def TV sets at the end of 2004 will more than quintuple over the next six years, to 50.4 million in 2009.

That prediction is way too optimistic, says Peter Winkler, global-marketing director of the entertainment/media practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“HD is getting sidetracked,” Winkler says, “by new-technology extras like video-on-demand and the digital video recorder.”

Winkler says cable operators and satellite distributors are likely to focus over the next few years on stuff that will pump up their profits, like high-speed Internet access and broadband telephone service.

And the networks that spend 5% to 10% more in production costs to turn out high-def programming find they’re not yet getting that investment back from Madison Avenue.

“We won’t pay a premium to buy a show just because it’s sent out in HD,” says Bob Flood, executive VP and director of national TV for Optimedia Intl.

John Rash, executive VP of national broadcast for Campbell-Mithun, agrees, but he adds that high-def could pull more viewers into a show they might not normally watch.

“Casual baseball fans might be enticed to keep tuned to a Sunday-night game if ESPN is carrying it in high-def,” Rash says, with the extra viewers funneling more ad revenues to the network.

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