A disciple of hi-def delights in news that nets are signing on. Now all she needs is a new entertainment center
Byline: STACI D. KRAMER
As a hockey fan, my first personal glimmer of the power of sports to send people to the high-definition TV section at the nearest box store was when the NHL announced last year that Mark Cuban’s HD channel would carry up to 65 games during the 2001-2002 season. Suddenly, I started looking at the Sunday ads with more than idle curiosity.
The second glimpse came when I followed Cuban’s suggestion to go to Circuit City and check out the network’s Olympic coverage in HD. I spent so much time there the salespeople came close to giving me my own recliner. Yes, you can see the puck. More important for hockey, you can see the whole play develop. As much as I enjoy baseball, basketball or yes, even golf on TV, the reality of hockey in hi-def was – as promised by Cuban and others – what sent me into “I want HD” land.
But our home entertainment center still houses a decade-old Sony. Beyond the thought that we’ll be able to buy more set for the money as prices continue to drop lies a much more important question: Who will deliver our HD signal? As DirecTV subscribers for more than four years, we would have to change our dish and buy a new receiver – an investment approaching $1,000 including installation. Our cable provider wasn’t close to offering the service, or so we thought. As much as we both like hockey, limited programming plus high cost equaled “no” for us.
That’s all about to change. For HD, it looks like the tipping point – that moment when something pops on the radar as a must-have, must-do and can-have, can-do – is coming sooner than anyone, except possibly Cuban, expected. This time last year, HD was on an almost leisurely, let’s-play-around-with-it pace. Now there’s a sense of action fueled externally by prices dropping to a more realistic range for average consumers and within the industry by the decision of major MSOs to ramp up HD rollouts for a combination of political and competitive considerations.
And sports – as was the case for cable and DBS acceptance – is in the driver’s seat with some of the biggest names in sports and cable betting that sports will drive HD right into people’s living rooms. News that ESPN HD will launch in early 2003 with 100 live telecasts of MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA games and that sibling ABC would present the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA finals and Monday Night Football in HD became instant props for salespeople dealing with prospective HD buyers. And access to major sporting events – not just a few select games – expands that prospective group beyond early adapters and extreme fans with lots of money. It’s not all at the national level: Comcast SportsNet is investing roughly $10 million in an HD truck that will travel between Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C., area to produce HD games for its two networks.
Granted, even if the number of HD sets in households tripled after this holiday season, you’d still only be talking about less than 2% penetration. It’s far from ubiquity.
“The issue at this stage is not ratings,” says ESPN’s programming hotshot Mark Shapiro. “We’re not foolish enough to think we’re going to do a great number. This is about a statement. This is about providing content for our cable operators who desire it and about doing our part for the digital transition.”
The NHL is in discussions again with Cuban for a full slate this season. “Obviously this is an expensive undertaking,” says NHL EVP and COO Jon Litner. Echoing a mantra I heard repeatedly during my reporting on the sports special section in this issue, Litner added, “Our first priority is to jump-start the industry. We just want to be a part of that.”
Selling HD sets puts money in the pockets of manufacturers and retailers. The equation isn’t nearly as neat for MSOs. Some are considering an extra-charge HD tier. Some MSOs charge a monthly fee for the HD set-top. One MSO may sell the boxes a la DirecTV. That would pass the cost along more quickly but doesn’t give cable one clear advantage it would otherwise have over DBS – a much less expensive way to get HD.
For Time Warner Cable programmer Fred Dressler, HD presents a quandary. “Today we’re viewing this as a customer service. We don’t charge extra for an HD box. We believe there’s a great deal of retention in that.” Dressler doesn’t believe subscribers should be charged extra for HD feeds of networks they already get, and he doesn’t believe MSOs should pay extra for them either. He doesn’t want to deprive anyone by carrying only the HD feed of a simulcast channel but recognizes “there probably isn’t a business in programming only for HD customers.”
There probably isn’t. Yet. For now, most of the benefit for programmers will come from helping their operators get or retain high-end customers. As the number of HD consumers rises, so too will demand for programming that takes advantage of the still-expensive sets and the chance to make money by providing that programming.
Now back to figuring out if we can fit an HD set into the entertainment center. Given the different aspect ratio of HD, maybe MSOs could score some incremental revenue by cutting deals with furniture stores.
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