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New Technology Could Define ESPN's Future

Though market for it is still small, sports network has invested millions of dollars in a channel that will show high-definition broadcasts.

March 20, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

TUCSON — ESPN "Sunday Night Baseball" director Jimmy Moore has spent two decades doing live sports telecasts, but the slow-motion images he viewed this week were unlike anything he'd ever seen.

Sitting in a remote production truck, he could see each muscle strain in a pitcher's arm as he released the ball. Splinters flew off a bat that cracked as it hit a ball. Tiny pieces of dirt sprayed from the ground after a foul ball.

"Welcome to the new world," Moore said, transfixed by the images flowing slowly across the monitors. "That's pretty awesome."

ESPN sent a crew to the Arizona desert this week to practice shooting a baseball game in high definition, a richly detailed, next-generation version of television. The trial runs give way to the real thing on March 30, when the company launches its newest channel, ESPN HD, with a high-definition broadcast of the Angels' opening-day game against the Texas Rangers.

Having made a multimillion-dollar investment in the new technology, though, the risk for ESPN is that its new venture will move in slow motion too.

That's because the company wants cable and satellite operators to pay an additional fee for the right to carry the high-definition signals, but no such deals have been announced. In fact, the largest cable operator, Comcast Communications Inc., won't carry the channel if it has to pay extra for it, Comcast Cable President Steve Burke said last week.

In addition, the potential number of viewers is small -- less than 5% of U.S. homes have the digital sets necessary to display HDTV, a wide-screen format with five times the detail of conventional TV. Even worse, many of those homes are served by cable systems that don't offer any HDTV programs.

Nor have advertisers been willing to pay extra for commercials aired in high definition, mainly because they believe the HDTV audience, although affluent, isn't large enough to justify a premium.

"You put that all together, and this channel could take a long time to pay off," said analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research, a technology research and consulting firm. "It's a very bold move, but I think there's a lot of faith involved in it."

To Jed Drake, a senior vice president for remote production at ESPN, one article of faith is the inevitability of HDTV. The federal government ordered all over-the-air stations in 1997 to shift gradually from conventional to digital broadcasting, with HDTV being one of several optional formats. ESPN, whose main U.S. sports channel reaches 87 million households, is the first network to offer around-the-clock sports programming in high definition.

"Why are we doing this? The answer is because this is the future, and ultimately high definition will be the standard," Drake said. "It will change sports television."

But ESPN is not breaking new ground. Although it plans to send HD cameras to 100 events over the next 12 months -- including the Stanley Cup playoffs, NFL games and other high-rated contests -- about 90% of the games it airs and all of its studio programs will be shot with conventional cameras and later converted electronically to simulated HDTV.

By way of comparison, CBS has been shooting and airing many of its top sports events, including the Masters golf tournament and men's college basketball playoffs, in high definition for up to four years.

"We got to make most of our mistakes when nobody was watching," said Martin D. Franks, CBS' executive vice president.

The amount of true HDTV programming on ESPN HD is expected to go up dramatically next year, after the company completes work on a new, 120,000-square-foot digital production facility in Bristol, Conn., where it's based.

The company, largely owned by the Walt Disney Co., declined to disclose how much it has invested in ESPN HD. But Bryan Burns, vice president of strategic planning, said that producing in high definition carries a "significant premium" in cost.

"This is a different animal," Burns said of the new venture. "We all have to temper our expectations.... This is not going to be a 20-million-subscriber service out of the box, or even close to out of the box."

ESPN officials say they have a history of building successful channels from the ground up. They have six U.S. networks, four of which reach at least 38-million homes.

One factor working in the company's favor, analysts and television-industry officials say, is that sports programming is well suited for the crisply detailed, wide-screen presentation of HDTV.

"Sports is one of the key things that the early adopters are looking for," said Larry Gerbrandt, chief content officer for Kagan World Media, a media research firm. It makes sense for ESPN to get into the HDTV business relatively early, Gerbrandt said, before cable operators settle on a package of HDTV channels.

"This is going to be the battle of the two 800-pound gorillas," Gerbrandt said, referring to cable operators and ESPN. "Both need each other, but at the same time, neither wants to show weakness."

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