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Playing for Keeps

Comcast, Fox Sports Net answer the high-def call 10/03/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Last week, Comcast unveiled two new regional HD sports networks: Comcast SportsNet Chicago HD and Comcast SportsNet West. In 2005, the regional Fox Sports Net stations will add some 250 HD events. The network also hopes to get DirecTV carriage by the start of the NBA season. While this gives viewers more reasons to purchase an HD set, networks will add broadcasts and invest in production value—without recouping new revenues.

"To date, there is no return on investment as it relates to high-def," says Randy Freer, Fox Sports Net COO. "Cable and satellite operators are looking to get it without cost, and it costs more to produce the games in HD."

Freer's words are echoed by everyone involved in HD sports—or any HD niche. But it won't slow down HD's expanding role. Comcast expects its two new networks to bring viewers pre-season NBA home games in HD. The theory is HD gives sports viewers a value-added service that builds loyalty.

The Chicago SportsNet will bring viewers Chicago Bulls home games, and next year it will air Cubs and White Sox Major League Baseball games. The SportsNet West network will broadcast Sacramento Kings games in HD.

Still, launching the new channels is less expensive than the debut of Comcast SportsNet HD services in Philadelphia or the Mid-Atlantic channel (serving Washington and Baltimore).

When those services went live, Comcast had to build its own production truck for $8 million. Now Comcast can rent an HD truck for $12,000 to $15,000, which is 20%-30% more than an SD vehicle rents for.

"Game production is at the center of all our networks," says Chris Helein, vice president of communications at Comcast SportsNet. "It's the first thing we give our fans, and the production needs to be of the highest quality."

Freer concurs, which is why the regional networks have built a new production vehicle with mobile truck vendor National Mobile Television (NMT). With two HD outputs and two SD outputs, the truck makes it easier for HD viewers to see road games in high-def. Without the innovative approach, two HD trucks would be required in the parking lot, or, more likely, the HD viewers would watch an SD telecast.

"We'd rather put more money on the screen than more money in the parking lot," says Freer. Given the possibility of producing thousands of events each year among its 20 regional networks, Fox Sports Net is determined to keep money in content coffers.

"Doing road games is hard because not all the other regional sports networks have evolved yet," Freer adds. "At some point, we'll let the consumer catch up. Doing all home games is enough of an investment for now."

In the end, the motivating factor for HD sports is keeping ahead of the competition.

The Comcast Chicago HD facility is still to be built, and the company hopes it will be completed by April. Currently, the network is operating out of Oakbrook, Ill., and will broadcast enhanced-definition 16:9 widescreen material when it isn't broadcasting HD games. "It's clearer and sharper than 4:3 and is better for an HD channel," Helein says.

In the end, however, it's the clearer, sharper HD images that will score with viewers. And despite the current lack of revenues, Freer believes HD will pay off—whether from existing revenue models, like advertising and subscriptions, or more innovative concepts.

"The impact is still coming," he says. "And as HD continues to grow, that impact will expand."

Got Sports?
What networks carry in regional HD
Network Team
*Comcast SportsNet
Note: Most networks make only home games available in HD.
CSN* Chicago Cubs, White Sox, Bulls
CSN* Mid-Atlantic Orioles, Wizards
CSN* West Kings
CSN* Philadelphia Phillies, Sixers
Cox San Diego Padres
Fox Sports Net Bay Area Giants, Athletics
Fox Sports Net New York Mets
Fox Sports Net Arizona Diamondbacks, Suns
Fox Sports Net North Twins, Brewers, Bucks, Timberwolves
Fox Sports Net Southwest Rangers, Astros, Mavericks, Suns
Fox Sports Net West Dodgers, Lakers
MSG Network Knicks
New England Sports Network Red Sox, Celtics
Turner Sports Braves, Hawks