A Guide to High-Def Highs

The big picture is getting better and better
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It is starting to get crowded at the HD Inn. Regional sports networks are getting into the game, and some cable networks, like ESPN, are even launching second HD networks. The bad news facing all of them: getting carriage. Cable bandwidth is still limited, and VOD services are competing for any available space. But considering the dearth of HD programming even a few years ago, today's choices seem endless.

The networks highlighted on this page, including a few broadcast networks, are channels with a lot in HD worth watching, and that keeps high-definition front of mind with viewers, consumer-electronics manufacturers, and cable and DBS operators. B&C's Ken Kerschbaumer conducts a brief, critical tour.

ABC

What's there: ABC continues to be one of the leaders in HD telecasts, and this year its top HD offerings are also two of TV's biggest hits: Desperate Housewives and Lost. For HD-set owners, the two series are must-viewing, with knockout colors and set design. The only problem is that some of the drama of Lost is, well, lost, while we watch the beautiful pounding surf and lush vegetation in HD. We have castaway envy! Otherwise, the network's HD sports telecasts also continue to impress, particularly Monday Night Football.

What's missing: Reality and news programs. But the network's HD telecast of Good Morning America on Inauguration Day showed the promise of HD news. The other two big missing events: the British Open and the Indianapolis 500. This year, please!

CBS

What's there: CBS, with its sponsorship model, has found a winning combination. The most recent highlight was the NCAA men's basketball tournament. With Harris' backing, CBS brought viewers an unrivaled amount of HD coverage. The network also stepped up its NFL coverage, broadcasting three games a week (as opposed to one last year). Other highlights: U.S. Open tennis and the Masters golf tournament later this week. On the prime time side, the network's CSI lineup shines like no other program on TV, thanks to fantastic lighting, camera work and special effects. And the Grammy telecast this year returned the award show to its former glory, with top-notch audio that almost matched the now-legendary 2003 telecast. Daytime viewers can also watch The Young and the Restless in HD.

What's missing: Late Show With David Letterman—but not for long. It rolls out in HD on Sept. 1. (Oddly enough, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno was NBC's very first HD offering.) CBS reality and news programs are also not in HD—yet.

Discovery HD Theater

What's there: Anyone doubting the influence of Discovery HD Theater needs only to discuss the network with top technical executives at any other network. They'll immediately confess to the following: “Discovery HD is my favorite channel.” The reason is simple: The quality of the images is astounding. It literally is the best way to see the world without leaving your couch. Coming in May, Alien Planet and Profiles of Nature. In June, look for Corwin's Quest.

What's missing: Nothing. It's all good.

ESPN/ESPN2 HD

What's there: ESPN stepped up the HD big time this year as SportsCenter and other studio-based programming is now broadcast in HD. ESPN original series Tilt also got the high-def treatment. Now the network is turning to beaming ESPN2 out to viewers in HD as well. But it has been slow going since the network's launch in January, with only DirecTV and Adelphia signing on for carriage.

What's missing: Not all games are in HD.

Fox

What's there: Fox made up for lost time this year when it finally jumped into the HD game. Its ambitious NFL offerings gave viewers six games a week in HD, making pigskin fans rejoice. (And subscribers to DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket were ecstatic because they get the Fox feed). American Idol fans also have reason to sing Fox's praises, as the weekly hit show lets them catch every nervous, sweaty moment. The same goes for the other Fox show with a surplus of sweaty and nervous people: 24. Our favorite: NASCAR racing never looked (or sounded) so good.

What's missing: Reality. But look for Fox to be one of the first to fill in that void.

HBO HD

What's there: It's the rare movie that isn't shown in HD on HBO's HD service. But while the picture and audio quality of Hollywood's hottest hits is great, it is the HD originals, notably Deadwood, Carnivale and The Sopranos, that give us value-added programming. The opening credits of Carnivale are an HD marvel.

What's missing: Hit series like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Real Time With Bill Maher.

HDNet

What's there: HDNet's two channels (the second is a movie channel) fill in a great programming gap. The movies, for example, include classics like My Fair Lady. And Taxi Driver debuts this month. Watching classic programs like Hogan's Heroes, Charlie's Angels and Square Pegs (starring a young Sarah Jessica Parker) in HD is a treat.

What's missing: Like Discovery HD, it's all good.

NBC

What's there: As of now, the only consistency is in its dramas and Leno. Sitcoms still seem to be a random mix of HD and non-HD. But when NBC does it right, as it did with American Dreams and Leno, it looks great. As for sporting events, horse racing's Triple Crown and NASCAR are traditional favorites.

What's missing: A few sitcoms and NBC news programs. The finishing touches are being put on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and that should be on the air in HD by the end of April.

PBS HD

What's there: PBS finally moved beyond its HD loop of programming, which, after about two or three years, kind of wore out its welcome. But now the network broadcasts a rich mix of Frontline, Nature and other programming in HD (the Broadway: The American Musical series was especially impressive).

What's missing: Not all series were acquired in HD.

Showtime HD

What's there: Like HBO, Showtime features great transfers of Hollywood. In fact, Showtime's movies tend to be geared toward the movie purist, because more movies seem to be broadcast in the original aspect ratio (not all films are meant to be broadcast in full-screen 16:9). Boxing and original series also get the HD treatment.

What's missing: Reality shows like Family Business.

TNT HD

What's there: TNT is currently a mishmash of HD and shows and movies ssstretched from a 4:3 ratio to widescreen. But when it does it right, its HD presentations are spectacular. NBA games and NASCAR top the list for sports, and programs like Without a Trace and Law & Order are mainstays.

What's missing: Older episodes of shows like Law & Order, among other older series and movies.

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