Putting the Future Of TV Into Focus

By Sam Diaz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2007

There's nothing flashy about "Sunrise Earth," a show that airs weekdays at 7 a.m. on Discovery HD Theater. As the name implies, the program simply captures a sunrise. No narration, no music, no host. What's special about it is that it's captured in vivid high definition. And for an increasing number of viewers, that's enough.

In the past few months, consumers have found new reasons to upgrade their television-viewing experience. The number of channels broadcasting in HD are on the rise, spurred by the drastic drop in price of high-definition TV sets. Plasma screens priced near $4,000 three years ago now go for about $1,500.

Today, 26 percent of U.S. households are watching sets that offer higher-resolution pictures, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. HD sets being shipped in the United States are expected to more than double by 2010.

With more viewers comes increased pressure to make more channels available in high definition. The average cable subscriber receives fewer than a dozen channels that can broadcast in high definition, and then not every show on each channel is produced in the higher-quality format. But that's changing, as the rollout of more HD channels and shows becomes one of the top priorities for the studios, as well as cable and satellite providers. DirecTV, for example, has pledged to offer 100 HD channels by the end of the year.

Like the introduction of color TV in the 1960s and cable TV in the late 1970s, the shift to the new format will transform mainstream television viewing. The improved quality comes with a higher price tag, however, not just for those buying the sets, but also for those making and transmitting the programs.

"People want to justify their expense," said Phillip Swann, president and chief executive of Virginia-based TVPredictions.com. "They're sitting around saying, 'I've got to watch something in high-def because I just spent $2,000 on a high-def TV.' "

The leader in high-definition channel offerings today is Dish Network, with more than 30. DirecTV and Dish Network plan to add channels later this year and early next year, including offerings from ESPN, ABC Family, the History Channel and the Disney Channel.

For networks, especially those with numerous niche channels under their umbrellas, the payback is becoming more evident.

Discovery Communications, for example, has noted that viewers are tuning in to the five-year-old Discovery HD Theater to watch shows like "Sunrise Earth" and "Deadliest Catch," a show about Alaskan crab fishermen that they otherwise might never have discovered, said Clint Stinchcomb, executive vice president for the HD network at Discovery.

Ratings are carrying over to Discovery's other standard-definition channels after segments from those channels appear on Discovery HD Theater, he said, pointing to a boost at "Animal Planet" after one of its shows was broadcast on the theater channel.

Viewers who experience television in high-definition tend to stick with it, he said. It's hard for them to go back to regular old programming.

"What that enabled us to do . . . was to develop a deep emotional connection with the 11 [million] to 12 million who are able to access the service today," Stinchcomb said.

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