Thursday, May 03, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: HD Networks

When I started this blog, I opened with a series of posts called "The Players", where I identified what I considered to be the main actors in the unfolding drama of the DTV transition. Since then, I've done twelve monthly recaps (since I'm counting down to 2/17/09, my "month" runs from the 18th to the following 17th) tracking the changes involving each group (The Public, Government, Broadcasting, Program Providers, HD Networks, and Manufacturers - retail being thrown in with Manufacturers). This series will look at what's happened over the course of those twelve months, and ask a longer-term version of the question I ask in every monthly recap - what's changed? (NOTE: This series does not replace my next monthly recap, though it has already made it even later than it usually is.)

Progress was slow in this area as well, conditioned by the slow bandwidth expansion detailed in my Program Providers recap. Here's what I had to say on 3/31/06:
Unless you're a simulcast of a popular non-HD channel, it is a proud and lonely thing to be an HD network in these early days. The general public doesn't know that much about you, even if you're affiliated with something they do know (e.g. PBS HD). You're lucky if you can get distribution, especially from cable.

Even lonelier must be those forward-looking TV programmer types working away at dozens and dozens of cable networks, dreaming of the day when they can go HD, and wondering just how long they'll have to wait. While satellites are ramping up new birds and new choices like FIOS (and eventually IPTV) promise bandwidth relief, most of us are cable watchers, and things are pretty dire in that sector. Systems everywhere seem stretched to the limit, and new channel rollouts are painfully slow (older Comcast systems still don't have TNT-HD, which Comcast rolled out in May '05). If you're a would-be HD programmer and you know Comcast may not be able to carry your channel for years, that's gotta effect your go/nogo calculations. No one wants to be the next Encore HD.

So the question facing the few brave souls willing to launch in these times is this; can they hang on long enough for cable to solve its bandwidth problems (especially if that doesn't happen until the end of analog)? Or can satellite/FIOS/IPTV carriage be enough?
New channel announcements were, in fact, painfully slow through most of the last year. Scripps Networks released HGTV-HD into limited distribution last April, followed by sister network Food Network HD on June 30th (they''ve since been picked up by a number of other providers, including Dish and just recently FiOS, with rumors of Comcast pickup in the near future).

The launch of A&E HD was even quieter. After an April announcement, there was no publicity (that I could see), and as far as I can tell the June preview never happened. I have to admit I wasn't exactly looking forward to it. But they did launch on September 1st (but with nothing on their website) into very limited distribution. Recently Comcast has started to add it.

In October a BBC executive revealed that they are considering a US HD channel. Nothing more about this yet. I also noted in January that South Park was conducting HD tests, but this apparently had nothing to do with any planned launch of Comedy Central in HD.

November brought the announcement of a new sports network from Comcast, one that combined content from Comcast's Versus and Golf Channel networks. The channel launched in January.

Things got so slow in December that I had more time to pay attention to events overseas, such as the planned launch of a kids' service called BabyHD, and the fact that MGM would choose to launch a HD movie channel in Poland before they did it here.

Then in February came the big announcement of DirecTV's plans to have 100 national channels by the end of the year. So how many yet-to-launch channels have actually been announced? Their initial press release mentions Bravo, Cartoon Network, CNN, FX, MTV, SciFi, Speed, TBS, History Channel, Weather Channel and USA. Not all of these have made announcements themselves (here's how the This Multichannel News article networks themselves reacted. But let's assume for the moment that they'll be coming sometime in the almost-near-future (CNN, Cartoon Network and TBS have all confirmed for September, and Weather Channel launches in the fall, although the effects of the tens of millions they are spending won;t show on-screen until early '08). The same month, NBCU announced Chiller, an SD/HD horror channel. March brought an American announcement for the MGM movie channel previously announced for Poland (up by the end of the year). And though they're launching in early '08 and are therefore don't count officially toward the goal, DirecTV is still the first announced home for four new Disney HD networks - ESPNEWS HD, Disney Channel HD, Toon Disney HD and ABC Family HD. Still a whole lot of announcements to go to make that number!

Existing networks made their own news over the year. In June, INHD added the new "male-themed" MOJO block, gradually expanding until the network was renamed in its image, and in January they dropped INHD2. While it's not as dramatic as turning into a new network, there are changes in the works for Universal HD, including the scaling back of old upconverts from the NBC Universal library, and more movies and sports. In August, Discover HD Theatre announced a major programming boost. ESPN/ESPN2 (in a January '07 announcement), slated two popular series for HD conversion come this June, and followed that in February with the announcement that ESPN will be expanding its HD coverage in seven major sports, while simultaneously cutting back in other areas (the second article claims that the net result is that ESPN will have roughly the same number of HD hours this year as last). Finally, National Geographic HD, MHD and Universal HD are among the existing networks that are available to far more viewers than at this time last year.

Some individual programs merit attention as well, and Discovery HD Theatre had a number of these. The Discovery Atlas series launched with great fanfare, but it's interesting to see how the series originally announced as Atlas HD and designed as a showcase piece for Discovery HD Theatre has expanded its focus to include the SD audience. I can testify to this from personal experience - during a late-summer trip to NYC to attend Wired NextFest, Discovery's booth revolved around Atlas, but there was not a single "Atlas HD" sign. Though not as successful as hoped, they're still moving forward with it. That's good news, as it's still a great HD showcase. Perhaps they'll do better with Planet Earth. The marketing for this one kicked off with a March sneak preview (information on the making of the seres is available here).They also gave us some extremely cool space station footage in November. Finally, they came up with an interesting way to stoke interest in Sunrise Earth - they took suggestions from viewers as to which locations to shoot next.

At least one other network made some noise about a featured HD program - November's debut of HDNet's November debut of Dan Rather Reports, whose marketing campaign included appearances on Colbert and at the HD World conference, plus a DVD line (with HD versions to follow sometime this year). Speaking of HDNet, The Dallas Morning News looks at HDNet's five-year anniversary here. And if you're a Comcast customer wondering why you don't have HDNet, read this.

Not as well publicized as the Discovery and HDNet programs above, but also of interest are PBS's plans to produce new episodes of their classic Matinee At The Bijou series, including HD versions. (If you read down to the comment section of the Engadget HD post, you'll see a comment from me that doesn't make sense anymore, as it refers to something they've corrected from an earlier version of the post). You can follow the progress of this project at the "Bijou Is Back" blog.

A number of people involved with HD networks sat down with interviewers over the course of the year to share their plans and insights. These included Clint Stinchcomb of Discovery HD Theatre, Eric Sherman of MHD, John Ford of National Geographic HD and Greg Moyer of Voom.

I'll close this recap with a little something I learned back in January. Given the negative reaction I and many other HD fans have to anything upconverted using TNT HD's "stretch-o-vision" process, it was surprising to see how much conscious thought went into the process, and that it even has a real name (FlexView). At least the linked article suggests that there will be less and less need for this as time goes on.

Next (and last) yearly recap - MANUFACTURERS. Then it's on to the later-than-ever "22 Months And Counting" (covering the events of 3/18 through 4/17).

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