Stations Battle for 'Best Picture'

High-definition local programming isn't just for deep pockets and major markets
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Viewers in Ft. Myers, Fla., were in for a treat last month when they turned on the 7 p.m. news on WINK. The CBS affiliate flipped the switch on high-definition local programming October 20, the first in the market to do so, offering up a crystal-clear picture of the day's news, weather and sports that VP/General Manager Wayne Simons says looks “absolutely phenomenal.”

Whether they're first out of the gate in the market, as with WINK, or simply keeping up with the competition, many stations—believing viewers will come to expect round-the-clock HD programming in the next few years—are stepping up their HD plans. “If you're browsing around the dial, you're going to stop on the screen that gives you the best picture,” says Matt Braatz, senior VP of technology and operations for NBC Local Media (as the NBC Universal station group is now known). “We're just giving viewers what they want.”

It's something of a perfect alignment of the stars for stations—the gear required to broadcast in HD is getting cheaper, and the rate of HD set adoption among viewers is rapidly climbing. When the Fox group built WJW Cleveland's HD facility in 2004—the first of the Fox owned-and-operated stations to make the leap—VP of Engineering Earl Arbuckle says the HD gear cost some 15%-20% more than its standard-def counterparts. These days, it's closer to 10%. (Stations typically broadcast in HD from the studio for newscasts, and do 16:9 standard-def from the field.)

Broadcasters suggest that the adoption rate among viewers—an estimated 15% of U.S. homes watch HDTV—will skyrocket over the coming holidays, perhaps jumping 10% in the next month. “They're expected to fly out the door,” says one station group manager. “It'll really start to make a difference in the first quarter [of 2008].”

To be sure, transitioning to HD is extremely costly for stations (a mid-market outlet might shell out up to $5 million for HD gear), and upgrading newsroom equipment while still cranking out a station's ever-expanding news production will strain any general manager's resolve. For numerous stations, either those in smaller markets or ones that are part of less wealthy parent companies, local HD is generally low on the list of priorities.

But for a rapidly growing group, it's simply the cost of doing business in the increasingly competitive local news field. “A lot of news is more or less the same—it's how you package it; how you present it,” says Hearst-Argyle Executive VP Terry Mackin. “It's a differentiator in the market.”

Approximately 60 stations across the country now offer viewers local programming in HD, mostly ones owned by major broadcasters such as Gannett, Hearst-Argyle and the network O&Os (see table). Dozens more are slated to go HD in the near term. In 2008, Fox Television plans on adding five stations to the two that currently offer local HD, while the CBS O&Os are slated to go all-HD by the end of next year; four CBS-owned stations have already thrown the switch.

For WINK, the upgrade is a costly investment with great long-run advantages. It's uncommon for a tiny broadcaster in a midsize market to go HD, but the Ft. Myers-Naples market is exceptionally prosperous (see Market Eye, page 17), and Simons figured those large homes likely held large flat-screen TVs with HD capability.

He started poking around at the NAB show last April, and soon acquired a batch of gear that includes four Ikegami studio cameras, a Miranda Kaleido KX monitor wall, a WSI HD Weather Graphics system and an Apple Final Cut Pro HD non-linear editing system. “We're probably the most technologically advanced station in the market,” he says.

While it's too early to tell if WINK has seen a ratings jump from its HD move, Simons—who won't quote what the station spent on the upgrade—says the response from the community has been very favorable. “Advertisers want to be associated with it,” he says. “In the long run, from an audience and revenue standpoint, this will pay off for us.”

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