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The Great Outdoors

When The Outdoor Channel (TOC) upgraded its technical operations a few years back, the decision was either to go with a better standard definition picture with Digital Betacam or to look foward and go with HD. While HD equipment was more expensive back then, they knew that eventually everything would go HD, so the idea of investing a substantial amount of money in SD was foolish.
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The Great Outdoors | Taking The Outdoor Channel HD

Launched in 1993, The Outdoor Channel (TOC) has grown into a profitable network reaching 25 million subscribers. When the network decided that the time had come to launch a second channel, one of the major decisions was whether to go HD or SD.

The Choice Was Clear

Leading this decision was industry veteran and The Outdoor Channel CEO, Andy Dale. “We were upgrading our technical operations anyway,” said Dale, “and we had a choice of going DigiBeta and having a higher quality SD picture, or taking this leap—and it was a bit of a leap two and a half to three years ago—to go to HD because the cameras were still very pricey and the editing suites were still an expensive upgrade. But we decided we were going to do it because we needed to future-proof ourselves and we felt that everything was going HD ultimately, and we’d be foolish to invest a substantial amount of money in SD technology.”

The HD transition began with one HD camera used for one show, with great results. “So we sort of jumped in with both feet and started transitioning all our programming to HD and ended up buying a whole slew of Sony HDCAM equipment and we bought a few Panasonic Varicams just to see how the 720p looks and that’s been pretty successful too,” Dale said.

The theory was that by shooting content in HD, the network would have more flexibility if they were able to launch an HD network in the future, and that’s exactly what happened: The Outdoor Channel 2 HD officially launched July 1.

Dale felt that the outdoor genre was particularly well-suited for HD. The combination of nature and sports highlights the impact that high definition can make. “One of the genres that is really awesome is bull riding. You can see detail on the screen that you just can’t see in standard definition. For example, you can pick out individual faces in the crowd,” he said.

All HD, All the Time (Almost)

All programming shown on the new network is shot in HD, as opposed to up-converted SD material. “We insist that in all of our productions the primary cameras are Sony HDCAM or Panasonic Varicam, with the exception of a case where a camera might be in jeopardy,” said Dale. “For example, we won’t put a $120,000 camera on a jeep that is going over a rock course.” In that case, or in the case of underwater shots, HDV cameras are used.

Unfortunately, advertisers have not been so quick to jump on the HD bandwagon. TOC requests that agencies send anything they have in HD, but at this point they are seeing a lot of up-converted ads. “This is where the broadcasters are going to have a tough time with HD,” commented Dale. “The advertising business is not willing to go out and produce in HD and they are not willing to pay extra for HD, so there’s not much out there.”

New Facilities TOC is in the process of building its new 30,000 square foot facility that will house the networks’ post production and uplink facilities, and eventually a studio. The Temecula, CA facility is being constructed by Studio 440 and the system integrator is Technical Innovation. The network is scheduled to move in by October or November of this year.

Dale is most excited about bringing the uplink facilities, which are currently contracted out, in-house. “It’s going to be full automation, server-based and we’ll be able to output our two standard definition signals—standard east and west—and now the new channel in full 1080i HD, all on the same transponder,” he says.

The facilities will house a Harris ADC-100 automation system and a Leitch NEXIO-HD server platform. On the delivery side, the network uses Scientific-Atlanta encoders and the head-end equipment that the satellite and cable companies use is Scientific-Atlanta’s PowerVu.

TOC has recouped a significant amount of bandwidth on its satellite by dropping its analog signal. “It’s a difficult transition to drop an analog signal because there are a lot of people out there in the cable business, particularly in the smaller markets, where they have analog receiving gear,” Dale noted. But by replacing those analog receivers with digital boxes, the cable operator now has access to whatever signal he needs—be it standard or high def—from a single receiver; and TOC is left with another 50 or 60% of bandwidth potential on its transponder for future use.

The Future

Dale sees a bright future for The Outdoor Channel 2 HD. “A lot of people have seen HD demos with close ups of flowers and whatnot, but we think that action in the outdoors is what’s going to keep people coming back for HD and keep them buying the HD sets,” he said. And once they have those sets “they are not going to be content with watching up-converted standard def on that high def screen. They are going to want to subscribe to an HD package and they will seek out what they can find in true high def.”

Dale predicts that “certain genres of programming that look fabulous in HD will become high def networks and those stations that really don’t benefit from high def will stay standard def, and we’ll have SD and HD networks the same way we have AM and FM radio.”

Heather O’Connor is the managing editor. She can be reached at hdoconnor@cmp.com.