Fall’s Hi-Def Picture Brightens

B&C’s annual report offers a slew of new HD programming—and novel ways for viewers to see it

With the 2010-2011 TV season set to become the first in history for which more than half of U.S. homes are equipped with high-definition TV sets, HD production has become more norm than novelty. But while most high profile programming is now shot in hi-def, much work still remains to be done before HD TV becomes synonymous with television viewing.

This fall, viewers will see a number of important developments in both the quantity and distribution of HD programming, with the amount of HD shows available on demand or online increasing faster than ever. Here's a glance at where the developments play out.

HD has been old news in primetime for some time at the broadcast networks: Virtually all prime, late night, news and sports programming is already produced in hi-def.

There have been some standard-def holdouts, however, and the news is that this number will soon diminish, as some shows make the transition in the 2010-2011 season. On Nov. 8, NBC's Days of Our Lives will celebrate its 45th anniversary by moving to HD. Despite the fact that it will be "an expensive transition in the seven figures," series execs felt it was important to continue "to produce and deliver a contemporary show with the most up-todate look," Greg Meng, executive in charge of production at the soap and senior VP of Corday Productions, wrote in an email.

Another new HD entrant can be found at CBS, with The Talk bowing in hi-def in October. CBS soap The Bold and the Beautiful will, however, remain in standard def.

ABC has already taken three of its four daytime shows to HD. No date has been set for One Life to Live's transition to HD, but producers will start shooting episodes in the 16 X 9 format for December airing.

Virtually all of the high-profile dramas and comedies from the major cable networks currently air in high-definition. "It's become standard operating procedure," FX President and General Manager John Landgraf notes when asked about the network's decision to produce its new series Terriers in HD. In fact, the network now produces all its originals in HD. "We're even going HD this season with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which we initially shot with some non-broadcast cameras because we wanted to cultivate an indie feel," Landgraf says.

A new cable series like Terriers also offers a blueprint for how the quality of HD production has improved in recent years, Landgraf adds.

"When I first produced a pilot in HD eight or nine years ago, it had a kind of video look to it," he recalls. "Since then, the technology and the cinematographers have evolved the look so that when you watch a show like Terriers it has a really rich, film-like look."

Viewers will continue to have difficulties getting access to all of this new HD content, however. AMC HD, for example, has widespread cable distribution, but only cut a deal for carriage on Dish in late August and it is still not available on DirecTV, making it impossible for millions of HD homes to watch Emmy-winning shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad in hi-def.

More slots for HD channels are opening up, particularly on cable. "With the advent of digital switching, most of the cable operators are shooting for 100-plus HD channels," notes Dennis Gillespie, senior VP of distribution at GSN, which will be launching its HD feed on Sept. 15th.

The GSN launch also highlights the growing number of game shows now in HD. All of GSN's original programs are being produced in hi-def at launch and a growing proportion of its off-net shows are now produced in HD, Gillespie explains.

This fall will be the first full season that both of the major Spanish-language broadcasters, Univision and Telemundo, will broadcast many of their new shows in HD.

Telemundo led the push to HD when it became the first national Spanish-language broadcaster to launch HD programming in April 2009. For the fall 2010 season, its entire primetime line-up will be in HD, along with a number of other daytime and weekend shows, notes Telemundo Senior VP of Studios and Broadcast Derek Bond.

Telemundo will air its first NFL broadcast in Spanish on Sept. 26 and is currently putting the finishing touches on a new HD control room, which will allow the network to produce its daytime magazine, Al Rojo Vivo, and its national newscast, Noticiero, in HD sometime in the fourth quarter.

This will be Univision's first fall season in HD. The broadcaster aired its first telenovella in HD in January 2010, and offered HD coverage of this past summer's FIFA World Cup.

Other cable programmers are also jumping aboard, launching some hi-def programming for Hispanic viewers. Soccer channel GolTV launched HD feeds of both its English and Spanish-language games last month and is promising to air a minimum of 250 live soccer matches in HD over the next year, notes GolTV COO Rodrigo Lombello.

"There is a lot of interest among operators to have more Hispanic and more soccer content," Lombello says.

Perhaps the biggest change in programming this fall will be a massive increase in these hi-def offerings.

Faced with limited capacity for linear channels, cable providers have been dramatically increasing their video on demand HD offerings, with Comcast now offering more than 3,000 HD titles in most markets and over 6,000 in others, and Cox doubling its number of HD titles over the last year to 2,000 each month.

A growing number of high-profile network and cable shows are also making their way to the VOD platform in HD. Cox Communications Director of Marketing and New Video Services Bob Nocera notes that its MyPrimeTime VOD offering now includes primetime shows in HD from a variety of cable channels as well as ABC, NBC and Fox, which recently inked a deal with Cox to provide "about a dozen of their prime time shows a day after airing on demand," Nocera says.

More and better HD programming has also boosted usage. Rentrak, which tracks VOD airing, reports that there were more than 165 million HD-on-demand streams in the first six months of 2010, up 125% from a year earlier.

This fall will also see a massive increase in the amount of HD content available online. As part of the TV Everywhere initiative, operators such as Comcast are now offering existing subscribers thousands of episodes online in HD, and Hulu is also ramping up its HD content as part of its new subscription service, Hulu Plus.

Although many broadcast stations still have trouble receiving HD files of syndicated programming, some of the most popular shows are now available in HD. Two of this fall's highest-profile rookie launches, The Nate Berkus Show and Swift Justice With Nancy Grace, are being shot in hi-def.

Swift Justice
Executive Producer John Terenzio acknowledges that there is an "additional cost for the HD production and distribution" but calls the decision to produce the show in HD a "no-brainer."

Being in HD makes the show's look more compatible as a lead-in to local newscasts, which are increasingly in hidef, and sets the show apart from its competition, Terenzio argues. "As far as I know, we are the first major court show to be in HD."

Beyond the production and distribution of more HD content this year, major changes in the HD landscape are also occurring at home. With HD sets now available in 60.7% of all homes-up nearly sixfold from the start of the 2007-2008 season according to Nielsen-viewers will enter the 2010-2011 season better equipped than ever take advantage of the proliferation of hi-def programming.

More sets, however, hasn't necessarily cleared up some of the issues about distribution. While three-fifths of all Nielsen homes have an HD set, only 55.4% are actually getting an HD signal from either a multichannel provider or a digital antenna, which means there are still 6.1 million homes that have spent hundreds of dollars on an HD set they can't use to watch distributed for hi-def programming.

"There is still a lot of confusion out there," argues Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst at the Leichtman Research Group, which produces an annual survey each fall tracking HD viewing habits. He notes that only 36% of viewers who bought an HD set in 2009 were told what they needed to do to get HD programming.

Still, those numbers represent something of an improvement. In the second half of 2009, surveys by Leitchman, Frank N. Magid Associates and The Knowledge Network all found that less than two-thirds of all HD homes were able to watch HD TV channels, with Magid estimating that about 14 million homes with HD sets are not able to watch hi-def TV programming because they aren't getting HD services from a multichannel provider.

Some of the improvement since then may reflect the fact that operators are increasingly offering HD for free as part of digital packages; also, most new digital set-top boxes are HD-ready.

"The number of people subscribing to basic analog cable, where you had only standard-def channels, is declining rapidly," notes Patricia McDonough, senior vice president of policy and analysis at Nielsen.

In January, 2010 Nielsen upgraded its systems so that it could more accurately track HD viewing. In past, more HD programming has generally meant that HD viewing patterns increasingly track overall ratings, and that viewers watch more of their favorite shows in HD, which has boosted the amount of time spent watching hi-def fare. Nielsen is now reporting that more than 70% of all viewing in HD homes consists of hi-def programming. That marks a big change from only a year ago, when some surveys were reporting that HD set owners were spending more than half of their time watching standard-definition TV.

"Some viewing in standard definition may reflect that people are forgetting to go to HD channels but a lot of it, I think, is from people watching TV in other sets in the home that are still standard definition," notes Nielsen's McDonough. She expects the proportion of HD viewing to continue to rise as people buy HD sets for bedrooms and other parts of the house.

That may also exacerbate the trend toward fragmentation and time-shifted viewing. HD homes are by definition digital TV homes, which makes them much more likely to have DVRs and a wider array of channels, notes Maryann Baldwin, VP of Magid Media Futures at Frank N. Magid Associates, which produces an extensive annual survey of HD viewing each year. "It just increases the incredible challenges of growing fragmentation," she said.