Way Beyond Screensavers - Broadcasting & Cable

Way Beyond Screensavers

New services put fine art and ambient video on HDTV sets
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By the time David McKeag gets home from work, the sun has long since set. But many nights, as he unwinds on the couch, he is transported to Turkey, the Canadian tundra and other exotic locales where the sun is just beginning to rise.

The morning glory is courtesy of Sunrise Earth, a program available on Discovery HD Theater since September 2004. “It has a very calming effect on me,” says McKeag, a personal trainer in Long Beach, Calif. “Sometimes, I just like watching it because it’s stunning to look at. It’s beautiful.”

McKeag is one of a growing number of people who use their wall-mounted high-definition flat-screen TV sets for displaying vibrant, crisp images of art—whether static reproductions of museum blockbusters like the Mona Lisa or ambient video like Sunrise Earth. But with HDTV sets in some 20 million households, nearly half of which subscribe to an HDTV service, an emerging industry is taking art in HD beyond screensavers.

“We’re creating a brand-new category,” says Kevin Akeroyd, CEO of GalleryPlayer, a free service that launched on Comcast On Demand in 2006. “It’s been very important in everything we’ve done that consumers can get this at all the same touch points they can get music or movies.”

GalleryPlayer offers photographs and images of artworks from more than 50 content partners, including National Geographic. The images are also available on DVD and can be downloaded online onto SD (secure digital) memory cards or transferred through cables directly to TV sets. Beginning in April, the service will be embedded in Panasonic plasma and HDTV sets, and it will be available in thousands of hotel rooms later this year.

“We know from our user data,” Akeroyd says, “that it’s used really for ambient, serene nature photography in the morning, something educational during the day, and it tends to be stunning photo albums or fine-art collections when people are entertaining at home or work.”

From Avante-Garde to Classics

According to Comcast, GalleryPlayer has been viewed more than 500,000 times on its video-on-demand service since Sept. 15.

Among the other art-gallery and ambient-video services is Rainbow Media’s VOOM, which has 15 HD channels on EchoStar’s Dish Network and comes as a part of Dish’s $20-a-month multichannel HD package. Its Gallery HD channel has been available since 2003 and displays images of classic paintings, as well as art-related programs like the Art of the Heist documentary series about art theft.

Beginning in October, Gallery HD will launch VOOM Portraits by Robert Wilson, a series of hi-def video portraits of artists, animals and movie stars. A collaboration between avant-garde artist Wilson and VOOM, the series is touring art galleries around the world (it is at the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles through April) and will spawn a coffee-table book.

Biggest Marketing Push

VOOM General Manager Greg Moyer says the Wilson project is part of the biggest marketing push ever undertaken by the network, which also launched in 2003.

“We’re still so early into our lifecycle that there are many people who don’t know what VOOM is,” he says. “This is the first of several initiatives we’ll be taking this year to begin making an impression on the larger culture with our various areas of programming.”

Amazon.com’s CustomFlix division offers DVD on Demand, including Living Landscapes, a series of 10 ambient videos available in HD for the past three years. Living is also available in hotel rooms around the world and serves as interstitials between VOOM programs.

“When high-definition video started becoming a reality,” says Michael Heumann, executive producer of Living Landscapes, “we got really excited about using video as an experiential, sensory-immersive art medium, rather than just conveying information.”

Although the idea behind many of these art galleries and ambient videos is to offer an alternative to a forbidding black screen when the TV set is off, Jimmy Schaeffler, senior analyst at marketing consultancy Carmel Group, Monterey, Calif., says he and his family enjoy them as entertainment programming.

“When we first got VOOM in our house, the art-gallery channel was surprisingly different in a very positive way,” he says. “We loved watching documentaries focused on the great European masters and artists in parts of the world like Africa and Asia. We love seeing art we’ve never seen before in HD quality. The problem is that the number of features like that are few, so once you’ve seen it, that’s it.”

“A Certain Type of Viewer”

Indeed, this growing segment of HD programming is still in its infancy. Just how many viewers are watching is difficult to determine. And although services like GalleryPlayer and Discovery’s Sunrise Earth offer pre- and post-roll inventory for sponsors, there’s little in the way of advertising.

But providers are excited about the future of HDTV, in terms of both luring viewers and ad revenue. Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., projects the number of households with an HDTV set to reach 64 million by 2011.

“One thing that’s extremely important to good content management in the multichannel space is a connection with a certain type of viewer,” says Schaeffler. “This kind of art-gallery programming connects with a more lucrative subscriber. So you have an opportunity not only for a higher-end subscription product but also an opportunity to slip in some ads.”

Artfully, of course.

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