The Trouble With UHD

Sean Mota

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Sep 8, 2003
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The Trouble With UHD
Catch-All Nets Prove Problematic for Advertising
It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When NBC Universal devised a high-definition strategy for its cable networks, the company opted not to create separate simulcast HD channels for Bravo, USA Network and Sci Fi Channel. Instead, the company launched a stand-alone network in 2004 that could run content from all three networks as well as repurposed movies and TV shows from the NBC Universal library.

But the result, the network called UHD, has become a weak anomaly among HD networks. It features 1980s relics such as "The Equalizer" and "Knight Rider" instead of NBCU's most popular shows.

One member of the online audio-video fan community AVS Forum derided the channel as "a waste of bandwidth." That's the ultimate insult in a business controlled by cable operators who view HD channels as hogging three times the space of standard-definition channels while delivering scant few viewers.

In addition, some fans say popular HD programming is going to waste.

Sci Fi Channel's critically acclaimed "Battlestar Galactica" is shot in HD and is an on-target program for HD's male early-technology-adopting demographic. But episodes don't make their way around to UHD until a year after they run on Sci Fi, much to the frustration of fans.

This tactic might seem odd for a company that's embraced cross-platform programming, airing episodes of "Battlestar" on NBC or Sci Fi's "Ghost Hunters" on USA.
The difference is the cross-platform efforts were promotional.

The main problem with regularly running new episodes of NBC Universal's "Battlestar," "Monk," "Dead Zone," "Project Runway" and "Stargate: SG-1" on UHD is that advertisers pay considerably less for a spot on the HD stand-alone network than for a spot on Sci Fi, USA or Bravo, according to media buyer sources.

So if the HD version is made available on UHD at the same time as the standard-definition version on a show's flagship network, fans might switch to the HD version, thus cannibalizing ratings on the higher-priced networks. And costing NBC Universal ad revenue.

Simulcast networks such as ESPN HD or TNT HD don't have this problem, as both networks run the same programming and commercials.
Other complications exist too.

To get all of NBCU's most popular shows on UHD, many productions would have to be upgraded to HD, and the company might have to negotiate the right to repeat the episodes on the HD channel.

But the primary concern about -- and the main drawback to -- the catch-all UHD channel as it is now, is the lack of available ad revenue. (Of course, this is a Catch-22 because ratings will stay modest, and ad rates will stay low, as long as there's no first-run programming driving viewership.)

Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman Research Group, said simulcast channels make more sense from a consumer standpoint.

"What's most natural to the consumer is a channel that echoes the schedule they're used to," said Mr. Leichtman said. "Eventually you're going to have HD channels for [all NBCU's networks], but until then I think it would be smart to make UHD into USA HD."

UHD is not alone in this dilemma.

MTV's catch-all network MHD and Discovery Networks' Discovery HD Theater face a similar risk of cannibalization, and both are mostly stocked with programming that's already well-worn from running on their main channels.

But UHD's problem is more pressing, as the company has so many scripted dramas that viewers are increasingly accustomed to finding in the HD format.

Sci Fi's Thomas Vitale, senior VP of programming and original movies, said the company currently views UHD as a separate distribution window, like home video or pay-per-view.

"We really do care about UHD … but first we need to build 'Battlestar Galactica' on the Sci Fi Channel," he said. "But that window [the time between when a show debuts on Sci Fi and appears in UHD] will eventually shrink."

Until that window shrinks to the point where first-run HD viewing is a real option, Sci Fi, USA and Bravo fans will have to continue to wait -- and wait -- for the HD versions of their favorite shows.
 

BlackHitachi

Medford Oregon
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Oct 17, 2003
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Medford, Oregon
Simulcast seems to be the way to go. It really sucks that there are three channels that can feed this HD channels and we get all of the old programs! Heck i would be happier even if they showed SG1 and Atlantis in HD now.
 
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