HDTV’s clarity gives rise to new channels

USA Today: 11/27/07

It’s a fresh dawn for television.

In fact, it’s Sunrise Earth, the daylight-breaking series that simply sets up cameras in some stunningly remote locale — bison grazing in the prairies of Yellowstone, a canoe skimming the glossy surface of the Mother of God River in Peru, a butterfly emerging from its pupa in the Costa Rican rain forest — as the sun comes up.

HDTV’s clarity gives rise to new channels
By Mike Snider, USA TODAY
It’s a fresh dawn for television.
In fact, it’s Sunrise Earth, the daylight-breaking series that simply sets up cameras in some stunningly remote locale — bison grazing in the prairies of Yellowstone, a canoe skimming the glossy surface of the Mother of God River in Peru, a butterfly emerging from its pupa in the Costa Rican rain forest — as the sun comes up.

Though the series has been around since 2004, it is being joined by a flood of other picturesque series on channels both familiar and obscure, whose existence would make much less sense if it weren’t for another new dawn: the era of high-definition television.

Sunrise, which airs every morning on Discovery’s HD Theater channel, was one of the first designed to shine in high-definition. Sunrise “doesn’t even have dialogue,” says Scott Wilkinson of The Perfect Vision magazine. “It’s just a camera stuck in a beautiful place at sunrise, and they show beautiful pictures. You can put that on a loop, and your flat panel would be a high-tech art gallery.”

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These days, new HD networks are coming online at a rapid clip. Some channels are sharper clones of familiar names such as TBS, CNN and Bravo. Others carry unfamiliar names and exist to serve in high-definition. Both are building up libraries of pretty-picture programming — nature, adventure, art, travel — designed specifically to appeal to people who have just hung that huge plasma in the home theater.

“You have this high-performance device on your wall, and you want to exercise it,” says Comcast’s Derek Harrar. “You want to watch something cool and exciting — and clearly, the three main categories would be movies and then sports and, I think, this pretty-picture content is right behind that.”

A glance at the growing HDTV gallery:

•The Smithsonian Channel, which rolled out two months ago on DirecTV, covers the artful lines of classic cars (think pre-World War II vehicles and ’50s Ferraris) in World’s Finest Cars. Another program, Nature Tech: The Magic of Motion, zooms in on how the science of birds, insects, fish and sharks is improving airplanes, cars and even swimsuits.

The series Stories From the Vault, hosted by actor Tom Cavanagh (Ed), delves into the holdings of the Smithsonian museums. In HD, Cavanagh says, viewers are virtually transported to the museum. “The more clear and concise the image, the more people can see,” he says. “And when you are looking at artifacts with the weight of history to them, it helps to see them better.”

•Artland: USA, a new series on the Voom HD network found on Echostar’s Dish Network, takes viewers across the country to art galleries (such as The Art Institute of Chicago), national monuments (such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis) and notable architectural feats.

•On Mojo — a cable channel just rechristened from its original name, INHD — is Pressure Cook, starring Hell’s Kitchen finalist Ralph Pagano, who travels to destinations such as Mexico, Italy and Brazil to explore local kitchens and sites. “With the cooking craze on television, we took it to an exotic location where you can appreciate the beauty that comes across in HD,” says Robert Jacobson, president and CEO of iN Demand Networks, which owns Mojo.

•Expedition Safari, a series on the Versus HD network, takes viewers from Alaska to South Africa to track bear, antelope and caribou and to fish for salmon. “This is a genre made for high-definition,” says network president Gavin Harvey, “when you think of the (widescreen) aspect ratio that HD brings to the landscape and the great outdoors, as well as the color and vibrancy.”

•CNN, which launched its HD channel last month, plans high-definition broadcasts of news events such as Wednesday’s debate of Republican presidential candidates at 8 p.m. ET from St. Petersburg, Fla. (The network also televised the Nov. 15 Democratic debate from Las Vegas.)

But it began its programming in October with the two-part Planet in Peril, which sent hosts Anderson Cooper, Sanjay Gupta and Animal Planet’s Jeff Corwin to exotic locales in Africa, China and Greenland. Other HD news specials in the works for 2008 include Black in America (expected to air in April) and Transgender.

•Discovery Channel is re-airing Planet Earth on Sundays at 8 ET/PT on its standard-definition channel as well as its HD counterpart, with two episodes a week until Dec. 16. The series, which was broadcast this spring, has sold more than 170,000 copies on high-definition video discs, at $100 a set, making it the top revenue-generating HD title so far.

“The pristine quality of the footage shows high-def at its best,” says Judith McCourt of entertainment research firm Redhill Group. “It brings television viewing to a new level, letting you see and experience things you have never seen before.”

•The History Channel’s Lost Book of Nostradamus, which drew the network’s highest ratings ever when it premiered late last month, “was shot all over the world,” says Nancy Dubuc of The History Channel, which began producing its programs in high-def in early 2004. “Everything we do tends to take a global, visual view of things or has an action element. (With high-definition), the program just gets a fuller cinematic experience. It’s much richer, clearer and brilliant.”

The masses catch on

HDTV broadcasts began soon after the first sets were sold in 1998; since 2004, most prime-time scripted network programming has been available in high-definition. Early adopters watched special events such as the Super Bowl, college basketball’s Final Four and the Olympics.

But it has taken until now for the HD audience to reach critical mass. Prices for the sexy flat-panel screens have dropped from $5,000 and up in 2002 to below $1,000 for some this year. As a result, about 32% of U.S. homes — or nearly 37 million households — now have high-definition sets, the Consumer Electronics Association says.

And this is prime TV-buying season. Last year, TV sales during the week of Thanksgiving and the post-holiday shopping weekend accounted for more than 19% of all TV sales for the year, according to market research firm DisplaySearch.

Also driving sales: the government-ordered deadline on Feb. 17, 2009, for broadcasters to finish the transition to digital television. As more shoppers see the value in springing for HD sets — rather than less expensive and lower-resolution “standard-definition” digital sets — they are more likely also to be in the market for premium programming subscriptions.

So cable and satellite systems are adding HD programming as quickly as they can to woo and keep subscribers.

“There’s the equivalent of an arms race to get HD programming out there,” says Phil Swann, president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. “They are basically sitting there like two gunslingers, staring each other down and saying, ‘I can outdo you.’ ”

The arrival of mainstream outlets such as History and Weather Channel, he says, also “is crucial to making (HDTV) a mainstream technology. The channels people watch most often need to be in HD so most people wouldn’t hesitate to buy.”

DirecTV, which has 16.3 million subscribers, has ramped up offerings with a goal of 100 by the end of the year. Additions include A&E, Bravo, Food Network, HGTV, National Geographic, Nickelodeon and USA. Satellite competitor Dish Network, which has 13.6 million subscribers, offers many of the channels that DirecTV does plus exclusive programming such as Artland: USA on the 15 channels that make up its Voom HD network.

“DirecTV has obviously raised the stakes, but you’re going to see the cable guys respond the best they can under the technological limitations,” Swann says.

In general, major cable systems — and newer fiber-optic networks such as Verizon’s FIOS and AT&T’s U-Verse — have added channels at a slower pace; for now, their offerings average about two dozen channels.

While satellite networks have launched additional satellites to beam down more channels to subscribers, cable systems are depending on on-demand programming.

Cox cable systems typically have local networks in HD, along with a total of 20 popular channels such as Discovery, Mojo, Starz, Showtime, HBO, ESPN, History Channel and Universal.

By year’s end, many systems could have up to 50 channels, including newer ones such as CNN.

In addition to offering the HD channels for A&E, CNN, Food, HGTV, History and National Geographic in many markets, Comcast offers about 200 HD on-demand program selections including Sunrise Earth.

“Linear channels are not the future of television,” Comcast’s Harrar says. With on-demand, “you look through a menu, pick what you want and hit play. You can pause and rewind and come back later.”

Stories and pictures

The drive for more programming led to the creation of the Smithsonian Channel. Cable and satellite operators, after being pitched the channel as an on-demand network, asked, “Couldn’t you be a full-blown 24-hour channel?” says David Royle, former executive producer of National Geographic Explorer and now the Smithsonian Channel’s head of programming and production. “That was all tied into the explosion of HD.”

An added benefit to networks such as the Smithsonian Channel is that high-def production adds minimally to the price of non-fiction programming, which already is much less expensive than traditional Hollywood scripted productions, says Stuart Zakim of Showtime Networks, which helped create the channel with the Smithsonian Institution.

Providers and consumers alike have “a growing, insatiable appetite” for HD programming, Royle says. As the channel began producing high-definition material, he saw “lots of people buying expensive plasma screens and realizing there’s very little content. It’s a bit like splurging on a Ferrari and then finding out that there is no petrol. It was an extraordinary situation.”

In the works for summer 2008 is Aerial America, which will give viewers a bird’s-eye view of the USA. “We have just had a helicopter fly under the Golden Gate bridge and swoop around Alcatraz. We’ve just been flying up in Alaska. We are very high up in the sky, yet you can see the bears there fishing for salmon in the rivers, and you can actually catch the detail of it,” Royle says. “We feel we are beginning to be able to present America in a totally new visual experience for the audience.”

Eventually, HD viewers will want more than just pretty pictures, he says. “That will only go so far. You’ve got to be a great storyteller, too. We intend to be America’s storyteller.”

There’s more to Sunrise Earth than meets the eye, says producer David Conover, who has a new crop of sunrises coming to Discovery’s HD Theater in January. Earlier this year, Conover and his Camden, Maine-based production team traveled to Ireland, Australia, Hawaii, New Zealand and the South Pacific to capture new episodes that will air in January.

“We really want to give the illusion that there is a camera there, untended,” he says. “But if you look at it over an hour show there may be 100 edits. If they think it is just one camera looking at the natural world, then we have succeeded.”

Beyond Sunrise Earth, Conover says he has some new HD projects in the works that fit into this new growing genre of “experiential television.”

“It has just been wonderful to work with something that is really very much unlike the rest of television,” he says.

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