AMC, Comedy Central far from picture-perfect

It might well be the most stylish series on television. But when “Mad Men” beams into the homes of some of its most devoted viewers, the picture quality might make them think they’ve had one martini too many.

The 2008 Emmy drama champ airs on AMC, but the cabler’s high-definition channel isn’t on the menu of such major providers as DirecTV and Time Warner Cable.

Not that AMC is alone in this regard. Comedy Central, Golf, Lifetime, MSNBC and Travel are among several other networks that haven’t found nationwide distribution for their HD selves.

The issue is significant for those watching on HD sets.

Among the ’08 Emmys for “Mad Men” were honors for art direction and cinematography, categories in which the series was nominated again this year. The excellence is easily appreciated when broadcast in HD, as AMC is on such outlets as Cablevision (which, like AMC, is owned by Rainbow Media).

However, when the standard-definition broadcast is viewed on an HD set, there is murkiness, with colors not ringing true and images looking diffused.

Likewise, leading Lifetime dramas such as “Army Wives” and “Drop Dead Diva” are broadcast in HD, so their presentation suffers from the same problem. (“Project Runway,” arguably Lifetime’s most prominent offering after migrating from Bravo this year, won’t begin to be shot in HD until 2010.)

The reason these networks aren’t available across the U.S. in HD has less to do with technology than business practices. Carriage deals between several networks and distributors are simply so old they were negotiated before HD was even an issue.

Some of AMC’s deals predate its foray into HD with “Mad Men” and fellow Emmy nominee “Breaking Bad.” AMC HD won’t likely be picked up by those outlets until those deals come up for renewal.

“We have heard from consumers and affiliates that serve those consumers that AMC HD … has high demand,” AMC prexy Charlie Collier says. “We’re confident that as we work with our ongoing partners, that these deals will get done.”

Similarly, Lifetime exec veep of distribution Lori Conkling says HD saturation across all carriers will come as a matter of course.

“We’re always talking to our distributors about partnership opportunities as it relates to our services,” she says. “Those discussions take place all the time. But if you’re looking at how HD has been launched primarily — it’s been as part of deal renewals.”

Facilitating matters is the planned launch of a satellite in the fourth quarter of this year that, according to a DirecTV rep, will allow DirecTV to boost its HD capacity from approximately 130 to 200 channels. But how quickly networks will make deals to exploit that increased capacity remains to be seen.

Ultimately, as HD sets proliferate across the U.S. and the outcry to see more networks in HD increases, expect the demand to be met — sooner or later.

“Certainly, we believe there is demand for our HD services,” Conkling says. “It’s a huge priority for us to make it available to 100% of our viewers, and we’re working to make it available to those distributors that don’t currently carry it.”

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