Cable Operators

Patient High-Def Approach Pays for TNT

4/03/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Sometimes slow and steady will win the race. When HDTV euphoria hit several years ago, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. stayed on the sidelines, taking a more measured approach to launching high-definition iterations of its networks.

Costs were high, carriage deals were uncertain and consumer interest was anyone’s guess.

But Turner executives believe the delay has served them well. Turner Network Television finally dipped its toe in the water last year, televising the 2004 National Basketball Association All-Star Game in HDTV.

In May, TNT followed up with HD telecasts of the NBA playoffs. Throughout 2004, TV series and movies were upconverted and the first original programming began appearing in HD.

350 EVENTS A YEAR

Now, with the 2005 NBA playoffs on the horizon and Major League Baseball about to start, Turner’s HD efforts are in full swing.

“We’ll do 350 events a year,” says Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Entertainment Group. That starts with 125 Atlanta Braves games, 90 NBA games, plus regional telecasts of the Atlanta Hawks.

Those games will be produced in HD for TBS and Turner South. TNT in HD will carry golf matches and National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing events.

“All of our original programming is in HD,” Lazarus says. And more of the other entertainment fare — in some cases shot for broadcast network television in HD — is coming to TNT in “native” HD.

“It’s steady growth,” he says. “All of the sports are native. Some of the series, like Charmed, new episodes of Law & Order and the original movies, are native HD. The Steven Spielberg series this summer Into the West will be native HD.”

COST CURVE WORKING

Pushing back the launch of HD a year or two behind some of cable’s leaders has saved Turner some money, Lazarus said.

“The gap between camera [prices] is now becoming a small incremental expense. As we retire equipment, we factor that in, so it’s part of our planning process.”

Indeed, Turner has just broken ground on three new studios, to be built for HD from the ground up.

“We produce a lot of TV series here,” Lazarus says, such as the long-form interstitial material like Dinner and a Movie, Movie and a Makeover and Robert Osborne’s introductions to Turner Classic Movies presentations.

It converted an existing studio to handle the NBA HD telecasts and associated studio shows last year. Turner bought one HD mobile truck in 2004 and “we’re just about to go online with a second mobile HD unit that we will own and operate,” he says.

It was only about 18 months ago that Turner began talking about HD, Lazarus recalled.

“We decided the NBA All-Star Game in 2004 would be our coming out party,” he said. “We did that as sort of a test, and started to build both mobile- and studio-based facilities.”

TNT’s mobile HD trucks carry standard-definition and HD equipment and can handle 1080i and 720p HD formats.

Each truck carries about 16 cameras, although more can be added if the event calls for it.

The trucks feature LCD monitor walls fed by Miranda K2 controllers, with unlimited monitoring configurations. Digital editors handle production, Turner says, so very little tape is used in the trucks.

Turner has four control rooms in its three existing studios in Atlanta. Two of the control rooms are fully HD/SD capable. The other two are slated for conversion soon, said the programmer. The studios sport 16 Sony HD cameras.

By the fourth quarter of 2005, the three newly built studios will add six production suites to the mix. Technical integration will begin in early 2006, with all HD studio control-room gear slated to be installed at that time.

Turner’s sports operations occupy one of the larger existing studios. All other TBS, TCM, TNT and Cartoon Network productions will work from both the new and converted facilities, Turner said.

To date, TNT in HD has carriage deals with Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network.

Other deals have been slower in coming, although Lazarus said “some are in various stages of being completed. This is about extra value.”

To date, no native HD ads have run on TNT, only upconverted versions of SD ads. “Here’s the rub,” Lazarus says. “We have a bunch of people who would love to run native HD and only run on the HD service. But for me to put someone on, I’d have to bump someone off. I’d rather upconvert the commercials.” Still, Lazarus, advertisers are asking more questions about HD.

“The ad market is intrigued by it,” he said.

Other Turner networks present good possibilities to expand HD, said Lazarus. “Cartoon has a good opportunity. TCM has a good opportunity and Turner South over time,” he says. TBS may be slower, he said, because of a number of the sitcoms it airs have mostly been shot on tape.

FINDING BUSINESS NICHE

At the moment, the truth for most programmers is that the HD business model has proven elusive. Costs exceed revenue, but that burden is lessening, somewhat, because programmers increasingly choose HD equipment to replace outdated analog and digital studio gear.

Lazarus says the HD experience is positive, because it’s provided a learning curve for programmers, operators and the technology community. “It takes an enormous amount of education, but we have developed significant expertise from the technical side,” he said.

The response from customers has been positive, too. “We get great feedback on our coverage in general,” he said about the NBA, TNT’s lead HD property.

NBA analyst Charles Barkley is often larger than life with his opinions on TNT’s NBA telecasts. HD allows Sir Charles to get even larger, Lazarus said.

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