ESPN-HD has signed a carriage deal with Comcast, and subscribers in a number of markets are already receiving the service as part of the cable operator's free HD tier. Subscribers with HD sets need only an HD set-top box, which they rent for about $5 a month.
ESPN-HD now reaches more than 50 million homes. Comcast, Cox, DirecTV and a number of smaller cable operators have made the service available in the past three months, according to Sean Bratches, ESPN-HD executive vice president, affiliate sales and marketing.
"The small cable operators are embracing this to the same degree as the large ones," says Bratches. "Certain products get deployed by larger rather than small, but this one seems to be something that the small cable operator sees as a valuable consumer proposition."
The Comcast markets that have the service available today are Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta and Northern Virginia.
The rollout is a decision left up to the operators in the individual markets. "We really want to be able to bring our customers the most robust high-definition content, and ESPN-HD is another addition to what we already think is a strong lineup," says Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but ESPN has been seeking payment of roughly 80¢ per HD subscriber. The deals from one operator to the other are fairly similar, according to Bratches, but he could not disclose what cable operators are typically paying.
One aspect of the HD deployment that ESPN-HD has been pushing is that its service be offered as part of an HD tier. Whether there is a charge for that tier or not is left up to the cable operator. Some see a free tier as a way to upsell larger digital packages while others believe charging makes more sense.
To Bratches, the most important thing is the offering of a tier. "We see value in offering a package that is composed of multiple networks that provide value to a broad demographic group," he says. "Hence, the penetration will be higher than it would be on any individual service."
The Comcast deal comes on the heels of the launch of ESPN-HD's efforts to drive HD sales with Best Buy. More than 600 Best Buy stores are running a loop of ESPN-HD content on both analog and digital sets to allow consumers to get a better sense of the differences in quality.