Fox does HDTV turnaround

The Fox network, a longtime holdout on distributing its programs in high-definition television resolution, now plans to broadcast at least half of its primetime schedule in HD by the fall 2004 television season. The turnaround means all of the four top commercial networks in the U.S. will broadcast HDTV for at least part of their program schedules.

The Fox decision was revealed in a New York Times story that cited a letter from Peter Chernin, president of Fox owner, News Corporation, to W. Kenneth Ferree, the chief of the FCC’s media bureau. Though the letter confirmed Fox’s change of heart on HD, it also noted that News Corp. is "unhappy about introducing HDTV" before the adoption of a "broadcast flag" agreement by the FCC.

The flag proposal — which would allow placement of an electronic block to prohibit duplication of certain programs — is now pending before the FCC. Fox’s letter could be viewed as a means to secure FCC adoption of the controversial anti-piracy technology. So far it is unclear whether or not the FCC will take a stand on the issue.

Under the proposal, digitally transmitted programs, including HDTV, would be embedded with a “flag” that could be set by the copyright owner to place limitations on future use of the content. Program owners are seeking to prevent retransmission of programming over the Internet. Consumer organizations insist that the technology does not interfere with the recording of television programming for personal use.

The Fox turnaround on HDTV is significant in a broadcast industry struggling to convert to digital technology while remaining profitable. Currently, Fox transmits a digital feed to local affiliates in 480p in 16:9.

“Without a very large television, it is hard to tell the difference in picture quality between Fox’s enhanced definition and HDTV,” Josh Bernoff, principal analyst for Forrester Research, told the Times. “But all the marketing is around HDTV, and Fox must have been feeling the pressure. This is a significant development, a sign that the acceptance of HDTV is accelerating.”

The transition to HD means a significant network upgrade for Fox and its 182 affiliates. In his letter to the FCC, Chernin is said to have pledged to have the job done by the fall of 2004. Fox, reported the Times, declined to say which programs it will transmit in high-definition. It said that it hoped to broadcast HDTV either later this year or early in 2004. Fox affiliates will have to foot the bill to install the necessary technology to enable them to pass through the network HD feed.

As it has said before, Fox said it would send it programs to affiliates in the 720p HD format, the same as used by the ABC network. Both NBC and CBS transmit their HDTV programs using the 1080i format.

Currently, as many consumer surveys and industry reports confirm, HD growth is being driven by subscription cable and satellite services, not terrestrial broadcasters. Only six percent of viewers currently get their HDTV signals over-the-air, according to Forrester Research. This year, an increasing number of cable outlets began distributing HD, though currently only about 20 percent of the nation’s digital broadcast channels are carried by cable TV operators.

Last month, Fox announced that it would offer local National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball games in HDTV to Time Warner Cable subscribers. The company said that it expected to announce similar agreements with other cable companies, which would lead to the production of 200 events or 500 hours of high-definition programming.

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