The Show About Nothing Will Really Look Like Something

Coming soon: Syndicated Seinfeld, Wheel and Jeopardy! going high-def

Broadcast-network prime time is filled with shows shot in high-definition. There are several high-profile high-def cable networks. And even some local news operations are now in HD.

But where's syndication?

For a variety of reasons, the syndication business has been slow to grab onto high-definition. But now, that's starting to change.

On March 27, when the third syndication cycle of Seinfeld debuts, Sony will offer the episodes in high-def. What's more, in what appears to be a first for syndication, Seinfeld will now produce all of its episodics—the short promos offered to stations to run—in HD. Sony is in the process of remastering all 180 episodes.

Sony again will move the needle beginning this fall when it will start producing its top-rated Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in HD.

Challenging distribution

Rich Cervini, VP of production and technical operations at King World, which distributes Wheel and Jeopardy!, explains that providing programs in high-definition is a bit more complicated for syndicators than it is for cable and broadcast networks, many of which offer HD programs throughout the day.

“Initially, there was sports programming, and the next programming was prime time, which is easy because, in many cases, that is shot on film or in high-definition, so providing it to viewers in high-definition wasn't a huge cost issue,” Cervini says. “In syndication, we provide our shows to many different network affiliates, so we have to have a platform where we can distribute shows to almost every station in the country.”

That makes distributing high-definition programming challenging for syndicators.

“It's a natural progression to now look at the types of syndicated shows that make sense from a production standpoint and a viewer standpoint,” he says. “Certainly, with shows that have the production quality of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, and which are in prime access right next to prime time, it makes sense that these are the first shows to go.”

But syndication's relatively slow move into high-definition also has to do with technological hurdles, satellite space and the servers used to store these shows. These barriers are beginning to break down, although slowly.

“There is a different set of technical issues for passing through the Network HD signal and airing syndicated programs in HD,” says Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations at Sinclair Broadcast Group. “The network's HD signal can be passed through by the station fairly easily. However, HD syndication is a little more complex.

“The station must first receive it off satellite and then record it onto a HD-videotape machine or a file server, then play it back in master control and switch commercials into and out of it. The goal is to make the syndicated HD feed easy and inexpensive to handle at the local station.”

But the studios also have to revamp productions to record programs in high-definition, while stations have to upgrade facilities to air these shows.

Most syndicators say preparations are under way to soon offer first-run programs in high-definition as well as some off-network programs, either because these series are already filmed that way or will be upconverted into it.

Vewers increasingly expect HD

“The stations are all starting to prepare for high-def, and the ones that aren't quite ready yet, that's fine. We'll still be delivering the shows in standard-definition to those that want to take it that way,” says Harry Friedman, executive producer of Wheel and Jeopardy! “For example, in Los Angeles, KABC is now broadcasting their news in high-def. They tend to be leaders, and I suspect a lot of other stations will follow.”

John Greene, VP of special projects at Capitol Broadcasting, which is a leader in HD, says stations want HD programming because viewers increasingly expect to see it. (And stations are now due to relinquish their analog signal in 2009.)

“It's clearly superior, and our viewers know it,” Greene says. “Like in most markets, people are buying the high-definition widescreen sets, so this programming meets their expectations.”