Which Comes First -- the Programming or the Sets?

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007

For much of the past decade, there has been something of a chicken-and-egg scenario with high-definition television, or HDTV: Consumers weren't buying the very expensive HD television sets because there was so little HD programming. On the other side, television networks said it was not worthwhile to produce pricier HD programming because no one was buying HD sets.

Now, that standoff is starting to change.

The number of channels delivered in HD is still small -- usually about a dozen or so on a cable or satellite lineup. But the recent inclusion of the major networks and their prime-time offerings -- "American Idol," "Desperate Housewives," "CSI" and "ER," among others -- has put HD on the radar of mainstream viewers.

The price of a set is also becoming more mainstream: A 32-inch LCD set that was $2,000 a few years ago now costs less than $900.

The Consumer Electronics Association expects an estimated 16 million HD sets to be shipped to stores in the United States this year, up from 13 million last year. HD offerings also are expected to jump this year. Earlier this month, DirecTV announced plans for HD versions of 100 channels -- MTV, USA Network, the SciFi Channel and others -- by the end of the year.

Cable companies are ramping up their offerings, too.

"The big cable companies, led by Comcast, became concerned a few years ago that they were losing their best premium subscribers to satellite, which rolled out HDTV nationwide quickly," Gary Shapiro, the president of CEA, wrote in an e-mail. "So big cable companies have come late, but they are now in the game."

Current cable channels in HD include HBO, Showtime, two ESPNs, Discovery and TNT. The first national high-definition network was HDNet, founded in 2001 by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

"The more HD people watch, the more they want to watch," Cuban wrote in an e-mail. "Study after study has shown that HD-content viewers turn to HD channels before [standard definition] to see what's on."

He said he wants his HDNet, which recently signed Dan Rather to host a news show, to add more original programming. "I want to take chances much in the same manner that HBO and FX do," he wrote.

Cuban noted that prime-time ratings have been edging up for network TV, and he wrote, "I don't think it's an accident that most of that programming is now in HD."

He predicted that the networks will see the real impact of HD viewing on their ratings in the 2007-08 television season, at which point, "the floodgates of HD content and networks will open."

How did we get from there to here?

Anthony Vinciquerra, Fox Networks Group president, credits former Federal Communications commissioner Michael K. Powell with urging the networks to begin producing more HD content, preparing for the federally mandated switchover from analog to digital television in 2009.

"He really pushed hard," and the FCC encouraged cable operators to start carrying HD signals of local broadcasts, Vinciquerra said.

This year Fox's 18 regional sports networks will carry some 2,000 hours of HD programming.

But the HD broadcasts of sports, such as Fox's NFL games and CBS's college football and basketball tilts, can be a complicated process. Some networks, for example, still require two production trucks at each game -- one for high-definition and one for standard-definition -- while others have invested in dual-definition trucks.

Martin D. Franks, a CBS Corp. executive vice president who oversees the network's HD efforts, said that the sports programming has been a good driver of HDTV adoption but that prime-time programming is what seals the deal.

"The sports clearly gets guys into the store to think about buying," Franks said. "But what consumer research shows, female spouses are frequently saying, 'What's on that we're interested in?' "

Franks said there are some areas where broadcasters need to improve the number of HD broadcasts available, mainly in news and on-site reality shows, such as CBS hits "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race."

The latter are slow to move into high-definition because HD cameras are still more delicate than standard cameras.

"If something breaks, there isn't a Sony store on the corner in Fiji," he said, referring to CBS's "Survivor: Fiji" series.

For Franks, the HD boom has a back-to-the-future feel.

"It reminds me of being a young man when only three or four color shows were on a week," he said. "You made your viewing decisions for shows based on what was in color that week."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company