HDNet: Cracking the Chicken/Egg Problem

(click thumbnail)While there’s been great debate over whether broadcasters can find a compelling, viable business case for HDTV, HDNet is going forward full-speed to make it work. As the nation’s first all-HDTV network, HDNet broadcasts high-definition programming – live sports, movies, and specials – 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Since its September 2001 launch on DirecTV, HDNet’s profile has grown as one of the nation’s top sources for HDTV, along with HBO, CBS, ABC and NBC. But unlike those networks, HDNet has the distinction of broadcasting HDTV all day long, not just in primetime.

What makes HDNet’s prospects so promising is that it is well positioned to face HDTV’s biggest hurdles: reception, market size, production costs, and technical challenges.

(click thumbnail)Mark Cuban

Through its deal with DirecTV, HDNet can potentially reach anyone in the U.S. with DirecTV’s HD receiver/satellite dish, its basic programming package, and an HDTV set – and since DirecTV has its own end-to-end distribution system, there are no over-the-air reception problems.

In fall 2002, if the government approves the proposed merger of General Motors’ subsidiary Hughes Electronics (which owns DirecTV) and EchoStar (which owns DISH Network), HDNet’s reach would immediately jump to 16.7 million subscribers – the combined base of both top satellite providers. And transponder space freed up through consolidation could allow new channels that HDNet hopes to add in the future.

Today, HDNet is seen on DirecTV Channel 199. In its 2001-02 live sports line-up, HDNet has scheduled 65 National Hockey League games; 15 Major League Baseball games, specials profiling the 39 sports included in the Olympic games; 13 National Lacrosse League games; and the Young Chevrolet Extreme Monster Truck Nationals. Entertainment includes movies, documentaries, concerts, and specials such as beauty pageants.


HDNet also appears to be tackling the chicken-and-egg problem: Few produce HD content because hardly anyone has an HDTV set, and people don’t want to buy the sets because there’s nothing on.

(click thumbnail)During the day, HDNet programs its channels with a sampler of highlights of its HD fare to catch the attention of shoppers comparing picture quality on TVs equipped with DirecTV in retail settings. (In its aggressive HDTV campaign, DirecTV bundles programming, HD receiver/dish hardware, and installation services with HDTV sets, which are finally reaching prices competitive with big-screen TVs.)

"We’re seeing our audience grow at a rate of about 10 percent per month, and that has exceeded our own projections," says Mark Cuban, co-founder, chairman, and president of HDNet, and owner of the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA. "Retailers and salesmen are thrilled with HDNet because it’s helping them move HDTV sets."

As for attracting advertisers with an HDTV audience that’s too small to impress the media buyers, Cuban says, "If people have bought a HDTV set, what do you think they’ll watch? And since there are only a handful of HDTV choices, HDTV channels will enjoy a much higher share of that audience, making the ratings impact more significant. And the upscale demographic is desirable to advertisers, especially those that want to show HD-oriented products like home theater components and movies in HDTV’s widescreen, high-resolution environment."

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HDNet developed production techniques to reduce one of HDTV’s big obstacles: the enormous cost of production.

"Through a strategic relationship with Fox Sports, we are able to use various elements of their live standard-definition broadcast, like the ‘Fox-Box’ for scores and other live graphics, audio, announcers, and effects mics for natural game sounds," says Phil Garvin, co-founder, general manager and COO of HDNet, based at HDNet’s broadcast center in Denver. "So, we don’t need to duplicate that production expense."

Still, HDNet’s two mobile units (HD1 and HD2) are each outfitted with five Sony HD cameras (two HDC-900 and three HDC-950 1080i/60 HD cameras with HDCU-900 CCUs) and a Canon package (including UJ65x9.5B, XJ25x6.8, HJ9x5.5 wide-ENG, and HJ18x7l8B ENG HD lenses).

Other HD gear includes a Snell & Wilcox HD 1024 24-input 1.5 M/E HDTV production switcher with twin DVE and four-channel still buffer; a Snell & Wilcox 1132 HD SDI video router; Sony MAV-555/36 HD DDR and HDCAM VTRs; and eight Sony HKDV-1125’s, which up-convert Fox production elements. Audio from the Fox truck is converted to Dolby Digital 5.1 channel Surround Sound in the truck’s audio suite, which includes a Sony DMX-R100 32-input digital audio mixer.


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Since HDNet is 75 percent live sports, the company installed its own fiber out to five camera positions in 25 arenas and stadiums nationwide in compliance with each one’s wiring requirements.

"We realized that the existing camera-to-truck HD cabling systems were incredibly expensive and not field-repairable," Garvin says. "So we worked closely with Sony engineers in Japan to develop a new kind of system that was much less expensive and [is] field-repairable, and that’s meeting our needs exceptionally well."

Using a custom encoding and uplinking system on each HD truck, the game feed is back-hauled to HDNet’s broadcast operations center in Denver, which in turn transmits the feed – in 19.394 MPEG-2 DVB-ASI with AC-3 audio – to DirecTV’s HD Operations Center in Los Angeles, which distributes it via satellite.

"Our Denver facility is unique in that program content stays entirely in the MPEG-2 domain. Instead of switching, we use (Sencore) MPEG-2 splicers (with EVS playlist management software) to cut in on the I-frames, because repeated decoding and encoding would degrade the signal quality," says Garvin. The Denver facility – equipped with a Pixel Power Clarity HD graphics system, Alias Maya 3D and Chyron Liberty paint software, and DVS HD disk recorder – produces promos, graphics, and other interstitial material, all in HD.

"In getting HDNet off the ground, we didn’t have any real marketing challenges because HDTV sells itself," says Cuban. "With HDTV, you can see all the players running the bases, and everything happening on the football field, ice rink, or basketball court. Watching a sporting event on HDNet is a unique, compelling experience that closely rivals the excitement of actually being there in person."

Claudia Kienzle