- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

As more Americans upgrade their old TV sets to watch shows and events in high definition, broadcasters and programmers said offering a completely HD experience for everyone is easier said than done.

While the vast majority of prime-time programming is produced and available in HD, there are still gaps in the television landscape, particularly in the world of reality programming and cable news. Meanwhile, less than half of all sporting events are shown in HD, as the number of events still outpaces the ability of broadcasters to produce live game broadcasts in HD.

One of the biggest obstacles has been cost. Broadcasting an event in HD adds about 20 percent to the cost of production and renting a HD truck for a live event can cost upward of $20,000 per event, according to industry sources. For news networks, building special studios to accommodate HD broadcasts can be outlandishly costly, and producers of some reality shows have found the expense of buying and maintaining hand-held HD cameras to be prohibitive. (Producers of “Survivor” recently said they will film the upcoming 17th season in HD for the first time.)

“There’s always a bean-counting aspect, and HD adds beans, so consequently, a lot of the people running the shops say ‘We’ll hold off,’ ” said Phillip Swann, publisher of the Web site TVPredictions.com.

Americans bought more than 10 million high definition televisions in the past three months of 2007, up from 60 percent the same quarter in 2006. Demand for HD programming has been driven heavily by sports fans, many of whom buy expensive flat-screen TVs based on their desire to see their favorite teams play. Most national broadcasts of major professional sports are available in HD. But the majority of college basketball games, for instance, are still shown in standard definition, and the road games of most baseball, pro basketball and hockey teams aren’t always shown in HD in local markets.

“We’re not quite at that level yet of saying ‘Everything’s in HD, away we go,’ ” said Doug Sellars, executive vice president and executive producer of Fox-owned FSN, which operates 16 regional sports networks. “We’re all dreaming of the day when it’s all output in HD.”

In this area, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic uses its own custom-made truck, housed primarily at Verizon Center, to show Wizards and Capitals home games in HD. But most road games are still shown in standard definition. Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) began rolling out HD broadcasts of Orioles and Nationals games this year, but only for 40 games per team.

“Mostly, it’s a cost issue, but it also has to be a slow progression,” said Stephanie Offen, a spokeswoman for Comcast SportsNet. “We feel we got in at the ground floor, but we’re also trying to improve it. We want to make sure we’re doing it right.”

In some instances, networks and cable channels have decided to invest their money elsewhere before broadcasting in HD round-the-clock. And MASN spokesman Todd Webster said there is a danger in going too quickly to HD, as it takes time to ensure that the picture quality is ideal. He pointed out that those older regional sports networks that are now fully HD, including the New England Sports Network and YES Network, rolled out the service gradually.

“We want the picture quality to be flawless,” Mr. Webster said. “It’s an evolutionary process.”

There’s also the issue of finding space on the dial for dedicated HD channels. While providers such as DirecTV and Comcast are continually adding capacity, the process of finding available space is often like a game of musical chairs. Comcast for instance, places MASN’s HD games on Mojo, a special channel with HD programming. And Cox Communications did not add Comcast SportsNet’s HD channel until earlier this month, just in time for the Capitals’ first playoff game.

Large sports networks like Fox Sports and ESPN have had less difficulty in getting carriage of their HD channels. The bigger problem for these networks is finding the equipment — in particular, special mobile broadcast trucks — needed to air as many events as possible in HD.

There are fewer than 80 broadcast trucks that allow for the production of a live event in HD, constituting about 44 percent of all broadcast trucks available.

“When we do the type of volume of events we do and less than half of the trucks are ones that allow for high definition, you can’t do everything,” said Bryan Burns, vice president of strategic business planning and development for ESPN, which will show more than 1,100 HD events this year. “We just can’t do it all because the equipment hasn’t been built.”

This time of year is particularly hectic, with baseball broadcasters competing with those looking to show the NBA and NHL playoffs in HD. Often, games originally scheduled to be seen in HD have been switched to standard definition in order to accommodate another broadcast.

Truck vendors said they expect to add enough trucks to catch up with demand in the next year or so, but for now, Mr. Burns compared the effort to book trucks to a game of “3D chess,” with networks constantly keeping an eye on which trucks are where. Ideally, networks and producers arrange for a truck to be used more than once in the same city, as rising fuel costs have forced vendors to pass on surcharges if a truck must travel long distances.

“There’s a tremendous amount of coordination and cooperation that goes on between the various TV entities,” Mr. Burns said. “You hope no one gets a flat tire, because it just sets up a chain of dominoes.”

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