- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

High-definition television (HDTV) long has been the Next Big Thing in sports. League executives have raved about it. Couch potatoes have drooled over it. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went so far as to create a new TV network called HDNet that caters specifically to HDTV.
But HDTV has remained an element of the future rather than the present, largely because of high prices for HDTV-ready televisions and a lack of top-drawer programming to compel consumers to take the leap.
That will all change this year. Sales of HDTV sets are expected to surpass 4 million, nearly twice the 2002 total, as prices continue to fall in many instances under $1,000. More importantly, both Comcast SportsNet (CSN) and ESPN are pushing beyond the limited big-event offerings now common to watching sports in HDTV and making digital airings of regular-season games a permanent fixture.
"This has been brewing for some time, but we had to draw a line in the sand and simply get started," said Bryan Burns, ESPN's vice president for strategic business planning and development. "Consumers want to see this. Retailers want to sell HDTV sets. Manufacturers want to make them. The biggest barrier has been programming, and that's where people like us come in. The planets have finally begun to align."
CSN struck first, beginning its HDTV airings Friday night with the Washington Wizards' thrilling 89-86 win over New Jersey. As good as Michael Jordan's 43-point performance was, the HDTV view was even better. The wide-angle perspective of the HDTV set allowed viewers to see the entire frontcourt during an offensive possession and watch plays develop. Details such as individual beads of sweat, tattoo inscriptions, and the wrinkles in coach Doug Collins' face were plainly visible. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound accentuated every shoe squeak, yell, grunt and crowd roar.
The HDTV perspective is even more dramatic for hockey, a sport that has struggled to translate fully to television.
In simplest terms, the HDTV picture is more than five times sharper than a standard analog set.
Bethesda-based CSN is sharing a custom-made, $8million HDTV broadcast truck with its Philadelphia counterpart. The network will show 19 Wizards and Washington Capitals games in HDTV this season, more than 50 Orioles games this summer and then start back up with the Wizards and Caps this fall. All told, CSN will air about 200 games in HDTV by year's end.
"Seeing sports in high-definition just brings a much higher level of depth and immediacy," said Sam Schroeder, CSN general manager. "From our perspective, producing a game in high-def is not much different than a regular analog production. Obviously, the cameras and equipment are different. But the end-user experience, the wide-angle view, digital sound and detail, is really transformed.
"This is an exciting time for all of us in the industry. For old-timers like me and Jack Williams, our president, this is similar to the initial roll-out of color TV," Schroeder said.
ESPN will get on board March30 when the World Series champion Anaheim Angels open the season against the Texas Rangers. ESPN plans about 100 more games in HDTV for the rest of the year, with all four major team sports taking part. The network is building a new HDTV studio in its sprawling Bristol, Conn., complex.
Several significant hurdles remain before HDTV becomes remotely as common as cable TV and DVD players. CSN's offerings remain limited to subscribers of Comcast Digital Cable. ESPN has not yet announced any carriage agreements for ESPN HD, the channel that will carry ESPN's high-definition games. Heavy up-front development costs also place pressure on a financially weary television industry.
Of course, viewers also need a HDTV-ready set to watch the enhanced feeds. For all of the sales growth, only 4 percent of American households have a HDTV set. And several major players in sports broadcasting, most notably Fox, have not made HDTV a significant priority.
"Having more programmers out there definitely makes it easier for both networks and consumers to make tough economic choices," ESPN's Burns said. "What we're doing is a massive undertaking."
But sports long has been eyed as the primary driver of HDTV growth, and the major broadcast networks also are getting much more involved. ABC produced a well-received HDTV broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVII last month, and ABC, CBS and ESPN will combine to air three NFL games each week in HDTV this fall. Only four such games aired during the 2002 NFL season, none during the regular season.
MSG in New York has shown Rangers and Knicks games in HDTV since 1998, and its early investment is now reaping tangible benefits in viewership, emboldening other regional sports networks like CSN to make similar moves.
And the FCC last year mandated that by 2006 all new televisions must be ready to accept a digital signal, of which HDTV is the highest form.
"We're getting very optimistic about the development of high-def," said Jeff Joseph, vice president of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association. "We've always said that quality content was going to lead the conversion. We're now seeing that delivered."


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