The idea of a full-time channel devoted to nothing but high-definition TV (HDTV) — not even a fanciful thought several years ago — has suddenly grown into an all-out industry battle.
INHD, a new channel owned and operated by digital cable programmer In Demand, makes its debut tomorrow around most of the country, including metropolitan Washington. INHD invades territory occupied by ESPN HD and HDNet, co-founded and led by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, as well as spinoff networks from HBO and Discovery Communications.
Not surprisingly, sports provides the backbone of INHD programming. The channel, to be seen locally in homes with a high-definition set and Comcast digital cable, will have a major presence with Major League Baseball, thanks to a recent deal that guarantees three games to MLB a week through 2005.
INHD similarly signed a pact in June with the new College Sports Television (CSTV) to air at least one college football game each Saturday afternoon. The Tennis Channel is also a content provider, and industry sources say INHD is nearing a deal to bring NBA games this fall and winter to the network.
Much of the TV industry has tightened financially and focused on sure things, in terms of operations and programming. But like its competitors, INHD seeks to catch the high-definition wave just as it begins to rise.
Technophiles have coveted HDTV for years, fueled by the wide-angle perspective and enhanced resolution that makes a high-definition picture about five times as sharp as a standard analog TV, and digital sound that accentuates every squeak, grunt and roar. But only in the last 18 months or so, as sets have dropped below $1,000 and now in some cases below $500, have both consumers and programmers truly embraced the technology.
As soon as next year, HDTV’s penetration rate will soar from the current 4 percent of American homes to 10 percent. Every major sporting event is now available in HDTV, including weekly helpings of NFL action. And locally, Comcast SportsNet has made coverage of the Washington Wizards, Capitals and Baltimore Orioles in HDTV a regular occurrence since February.
The full-time entry of INHD — bankrolled by cable industry giants and In Demand investors Comcast, AOL Time Warner and Cox Communications and carried on many of their local cable systems — pushes the effort another significant step forward.
“We’re definitely for real,” said Sergei Kuharsky, In Demand senior vice president of marketing. “We think there’s a real opportunity to offer a fresh voice in HD. We’re doing a lot of the opposite of not only the rules of standard definition TV, but also what Mark Cuban is doing. For example, all of our [network identification ads] have a white background. Nobody does white on regular TV, but it looks absolutely glorious in HD.
“As for HDNet, it’s a question of who is really of the [TV] business. We’ve been able to develop [INHD] very quickly and have a lot of efficiencies of scale because this business is what we already do and have done for many years. Mark Cuban is not really of this business. He’s an outsider,” Kuharsky said.
INHD will operate two networks, both seeking to work as full-service operations with concentrations in both sports and movies. But INHD2 will operate with a much more flexible schedule to allow for pre-empting by locally generated sports programming in HDTV, and as a result likely will mean a quick increase in the number of local games shown in HD.
“Even though you’re seeing local content produced in HD, high-capacity bandwidth is still not the easiest thing to come by,” said Rob Jacobson, In Demand chief operating officer. “What INHD does in part is provide that extra space for the local content to get out there more often in that format.”
Most of what will air on INHD and INHD2 will be shot with high-definition cameras or converted into the proper digital format from film. The result is a picture clarity much better than much of what is on ESPN HD, which converts much of its programming, including “SportsCenter,” from videotape.
Cuban, for his part, said he is not concerned about INHD’s entry. The outspoken owner, who does count longtime TV industry veteran Philip Garvin as his co-founder and chief operating officer, is quick to tout HDNet’s extensive offerings of original programming, as well as his two-year head start. Much of HDNet’s programming, which includes footholds in soccer and hockey, is similarly shot with high-definition cameras.
Cuban also is counting on less financial scrutiny during the next few years because HDNet is a private company and the investors of In Demand are all public corporations with millions of watching, expectant eyes.
“The bottom line is there is room for both networks,” Cuban said. “No one ever says they get enough HD content. The more HD people get, the more they want.”
Both INHD and HDNet will race for exclusive programming, particularly since most TV footage already on file is difficult or impossible to convert properly to HD. But carriage will be the biggest future battleground between INHD and HDNet, as well as a key indicator of growth of HDTV in general. HDNet currently is not carried on Comcast, Time Warner or Cox cable systems. INHD will not be seen anytime soon on either DirecTV or Dish Network, the satellite industry’s two leading players, and major homes of HDNet.
Both federal regulations and consumer pressure will likely dictate changes to that wide division before too long.
“The [carriage] deals will come when the time and economics are right,” Kuharsky said. “But generally speaking, I do think you need to be available to everyone.”