HD heats up

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Cable programmers may not have nailed down the right distribution and
production model for high-definition yet, but increasingly, consumers are
getting the picture.

"It was a no brainer to get started, and now we're peddling as fast as we
can," ABC Sports and ESPN president George Bodenheimer said Tuesday at the
National Show in Chicago.

Starting ESPN's fledgling HD channel involved more than merely launching a
new feed. The sports network had to develop an entirely new production system,
including four production trucks.

By next year, ESPN expects to be producing 3,000 hours in HDTV, including
live events and studio shows like SportsCenter. Bodenheimer said ESPN
will spend "tens of millions" of dollars annually to put out HD content.

Bodenheimer joined industry chiefs Matt Blank, chairman of Showtime Networks Inc.;
John Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications Inc.; and Mark Cuban, chairman
of HDNet, in a panel discussion.

Discovery has been plotting its high-definition play for
five years.

Discovery's five analog channels -- Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, Animal Planet,
Travel Channel and Discovery Health Channel -- produce 20% of their programming in HD.

That programming investment populates Discovery's new HD Theater. Now, it's
the carriage that is in development.

Some MSOs want to offer HD services like Discovery, along with Showtime and
Home Box Office, on a pay tier, while others do not.

Hendricks said Discovery will be accommodating to operators' plans.

Time Warner Cable, for example, unveiled a new free HD package this week that
includes Discovery HD. "We need distribution desperately to get product out
there," Hendricks said.

Not all cable programmers have jumped so far into HD.

Some networks, like A&E Network, are producing a few shows in high definition.

Others, like Bravo, are planning high-def channels.

But many, particularly smaller niche networks, remain on the sidelines.

Complicating matters, cable operators have limited bandwidth for
spectrum-hungry HD.

At least in the short term, Blank said, "I'm
not sure everyone should be racing to the starting gate."

Pay networks like Showtime and HBO, he added, need to be at the forefront with
HD and other new high-end services.

"Premium is in the name of our product," he said. Showtime produces many of
its movies and original series in HD.

In fact, the third pay TV player, Starz Encore Group LLC, which has hesitated to
enter the HD arena, unveiled plans at the National Show to launch two high-def
channels.

But Cuban -- whose HDNet and HD Movie Net show original and acquired
programming -- warned that cable networks that don't take up HD risk being left behind.

"We're in a game of Survivor," he said. "There is only a certain amount of
oceanfront real estate available for HD and more cable networks than there are slots
in HD."

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