NCTA panel: It’s hi-def or the highway

Exex say consumer demand will drive change

CHICAGO — Networks that are slow to offer high-definition versions of their services risk being relegated to a backwater, the TV equivalent of the AM dial, top execs said at the National Cable TV Association convention Tuesday.

“We’ve got only a certain amount of bandwidth, and there are more cable networks than there is bandwidth for high-def,” said Mark Cuban, prexy of HDNet, which offers two all-high-def channels.

“You guys (with HD programming) get to lock in your spot. For those who don’t convert, they’re going to find themselves on the AM dial. I don’t listen to a lot of music anymore on the AM dial.”

Change is coming

Despite the bandwidth-hogging aspects of HD, consumer demand will ultimately force most of the television business to transition, the execs said.

They were on a panel focusing on some of the biggest technology trends at the show, which has loudly touted the impacts of HD and video-on-demand services on cable industry growth.

“Our position is this whole transformation is coming,” said George Bodenheimer, prexy of ABC Sports and ESPN, which are broadcasting thousands of hours of HD programming this year.

“There are plenty of questions as to when and exactly how. But our position is we need to be there. Consumers will say, ‘I want the best product I can get.’ ”

Altering habits

And having HD capability now can affect viewing choices, even in the home of Discovery Networks chairman and CEO John Hendricks. He said he and his wife watch “The Tonight Show” most of the time rather than “The David Letterman Show,” because Jay Leno’s show is in HD.

“Now high-def TV is appointment television,” Hendricks said.

Cuban likened price drops for digital TV sets to what has happened in the computer business. By some estimates, prices for HD-capable digital TVs are dropping 2% a month, while adding features and better performance.

But high-def, right now, may not be right for every channel, cautioned Matt Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime, which has invested heavily in HD programming to differentiate its premium programming.

“I’m not sure there’s a compelling reason for the Food Network to show every little drop of fat in that dish” in high-def, Blank said.

Blank mused that a cable system might do better with, say, its 30 top channels in high-def.

Video-on-demand services could transform the way people watch TV, panelists said, especially if companies expanded their video-on-demand offerings, such as by adding each day’s news programs and sporting events.

Programming evolves

As it is, programs are already being created differently because of HD’s impact, the panelists said.

For its HD version of ESPN, Disney uses equipment that splits the signal into standard- and high-def formats for different feeds.

But even that two-for-one approach has its complications: HD’s more horizontal aspect ratio means camera operators shoot a game differently than they would for standard def.

“We’re talking tens of millions of dollars minimum to put out the kind of quality content that we’re talking about,” Bodenheimer said. “And the infrastructure we need at our headquarters is far beyond that. It’s going to transform the way we do business.”