TV's future in view, down to last detail

Television: Costs are high at both ends of the signal now, but the high-definition revolution isn't far down the road.


April 11, 2004|By Ed Waldman | Ed Waldman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The future of televised sports is as clear as the rotating seams on Sidney Ponson's curve or the dimples on Tiger Woods' ball as it rolls toward the cup on the 18th green at Augusta National.

In high-definition television, those details are incredibly clear.

With its wide, movie theater-style screen and its vivid pictures, high-definition technology is spoiling a growing number of couch potatoes.

"It's to the point where I don't want to watch a ballgame unless it's high-def," said Lloyd Stirmer, who has had a $12,000, 103-inch overhead projection system in the basement of his Fulton home for about a year.

Stirmer, a Comcast subscriber, said the picture is "so crisp, it looks like you're right there; you're at the event."

Comcast SportsNet and its parent, Comcast Corp., are among the leaders in bringing high-definition broadcasts to the public. In late 2002, CSN spent $8 million to build its own HD production truck, which it used for events in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

But earlier this year, Comcast SportsNet completed an HD control room to serve the South Philadelphia sports complex. So now, the truck will be used almost exclusively for events in the Baltimore-Washington area, meaning that all Capitals, Wizards and Orioles games produced by CSN are in high definition.

"I think at the end of the day, what is going to drive HD into the home is actually Comcast," said Mark Howorth, chief executive of National Mobile Television, the largest renter of production trucks in the industry.

"These guys have made a significant commitment to HD as part of their product tier, and they are absolutely the ones who are pushing an entire industry ... to move to HD," he said.

Howorth, whose company built the HD truck that's used to produce Monday Night Football, predicts that by 2008, 80 percent of U.S. sports programming will be created in HD, up from an estimated 6 percent this year.

Mike Silvergleid, editor of Sports TV Production magazine, said networks are moving toward HD broadcasts for sports more quickly than for other programming, pointing to ABC's broadcasting of Monday Night Football in high definition as well as NBC's decision to do this year's Daytona 500 in HD.

CBS, which aired the NCAA men's basketball semifinals and championship in HD, was the first network to show a game in high definition, according to Ken Aagaard, senior vice president for operations of CBS Sports.

It was a New York Jets-Buffalo Bills game on Nov. 8, 1998. That year, CBS used the technology for only three other NFL games. Next season, it will do its No. 1 NFL game in HD each week.

CBS has broadcast two Super Bowls in HD - the Ravens-New York Giants game in 2001 and the New England Patriots-Carolina Panthers game this year - four years of the U.S. Open tennis championships and four years of the Masters golf tournament.

Saturating Augusta

"The Masters is a big deal," Aagaard said. "We have 42 high-def cameras out there on that course."

NBC does all the Triple Crown horse races, including Baltimore's Preakness, in HD. It will do some venues at this summer's Olympics in Greece, as it did some venues at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.

ABC broadcast this year's Sugar Bowl in HD and will use it for both the NBA and Stanley Cup playoff games.

Fox is a late-comer to the party. Rupert Murdoch's network has not done any games in HD, but has plans to do both major league baseball and the NFL this year.

Jack L. Williams, president and chief executive of Comcast SportsNet, contends that sports programming is the best thing in high definition.

Feeling of being there

"Not only does it give you a picture that is six times clearer and sharper than what you've been used to watching, the configuration of the size of the screen gives you more of the field of play," said Williams, referring to HD's 16-9 aspect ratio - the ratio of the picture's height to its width, compared to regular TV's 4-3.

"In hockey, for example, you can see the plays developing. If you're watching a baseball game, you really get a feeling of almost being in the stadium.

"To me, sports was made to be played in high-definition."

Williams said top executives at the parent company, Philadelphia-based Comcast, wanted to offer more services - including high-definition programming - to their subscribers.

He said he told the executives that "the only way they could absolutely get what they wanted," was to build their own high-definition truck. He saw it as a worthwhile investment, even though HD production trucks cost more to build than standard trucks - sometimes twice as much.

The 53-foot-long truck was built for CSN by Sony's Systems Integration Center in San Jose, Calif. (Sony has since sold that division.) The first high-definition game on CSN was Feb. 15, 2003, with the Carolina Hurricanes visiting the Philadelphia Flyers. The first HD broadcast out of MCI Center was a Washington Wizards-New Jersey Nets game six days later.

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