By Tom Krazit
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
September 5, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
No one has figured out how to bring the crisp October air, the aroma of beer and bratwurst, and the electricity generated by 70,000 football fans into a living room. But high-definition television can come pretty close.
Most people can appreciate the sharper images and wider viewing angles delivered by HDTV while watching just about any program. Sporting events, however, have been one of the easiest selling points for HD programming.
HDTV sales are booming, with expectations of a 63 percent increase in worldwide shipments this year, according to iSuppli. DirecTV's high-definition subscribers have almost doubled in the past year, and about 30 percent of Comcast's subscribers now receive either HD or DVR content in their homes. And they're doing it, in large part, for sports. "American Idol" may be a ratings juggernaut, but it is not putting HD televisions in homes.
"The more relevant question is: What is the future for sports that are not in high definition? The answer is that once a sports fan sees a game in HD, you can't go back to standard definition," said Mark Cuban, founder of HDNet and owner of the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks. (Read CNET News.com's latest interview with Cuban.)
Sports have always been a driving force behind major breakthroughs in television technology, said Mark Kirstein, an analyst at iSuppli. While HD technology is easily appreciated for watching a sporting event, fans themselves are the main reason that technology investments are directed toward sports. "The sports fans themselves are more avid enthusiasts for their particular content" as compared to, say, viewers of ABC's "Lost", he said.
It didn't happen overnight. CBS aired its first HD broadcasts in 1998, four National Football League games that were sponsored by Sony, said Ken Aagaard, senior vice president of operations and production.
"The motivation wasn't to do anything other than, 'Let's figure out how to do this,'" he said. Smaller broadcasters like Cablevision Systems were airing HD telecasts of hockey games at New York's Madison Square Garden, and even though very few people in 1998 owned a set capable of receiving HD content, Aagaard and CBS realized that the technology would arrive at some point.
In 2000, CBS started showing its Southeastern Conference college football games in HD, one of the moves that Aagaard cites as helping create interest in the technology.
Electronics retailers in malls would air HD college football games on Saturday afternoons, during the height of the week's mall traffic, as a way of promoting their HD television sets. "College football really made a difference; people could go to a store and see something live," he said.
College sports fans also tend to be more colorful and passionate than professional sports fans, and that sea of school colors, cheerleaders and wide stadiums like the University of Michigan's "Big House" played well in HD, he said.
ESPN, one of the first television networks to make big money focusing exclusively on sports, has been using HD technology since March 2003, said Bryan Burns, vice president of strategic business planning and development for the Bristol, Conn., company. Its first HD telecast was opening day of the 2003 baseball season, a contest between the Texas Rangers and the (then) Anaheim Angels, live from Southern California.
Since then, ESPN has expanded its HD coverage to 770 events, with plans to do every college and professional football game it televises this year in HD, Burns said.
Switching from standard-definition broadcasting to HD broadcasting is an expensive undertaking, Burns said. Not only does ESPN require new cameras and other technology to send out HD images, but it has had to retrain its entire work force, which was used to dealing with tape, to handle the new equipment and processes.
That investment is worth it, however, because sporting events are one of the few remaining television programs that can assemble a large audience at a designated time, iSuppli's Kirstein said. Sports fans also care much more about their viewing experience than do sitcom watchers or reality television junkies, he said.
"The sports fans themselves are more avid enthusiasts for their particular content. Their level of enthusiasm in watching it is higher than the general public's interest in watching it," Kirstein said.
Fox Sports, which shows the baseball playoffs, Nascar auto racing and several NFL games each Sunday in HD, got going on high definition a little later than other networks. Its first HD broadcasts came in September 2004, with six NFL games. But Fox has converted its broadcast center to HD technology and will broadcast almost every sporting event it covers in HD over the course of the next year, said Jerry Steinberg, vice president of field and technical operations.
"HD has become, over the past couple of years, television. It's no longer an experiment, it's no longer a science project, it's real TV," Steinberg said.
CNET News.com's Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.
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Editors: Jim Kerstetter, Zoë Slocum
Design: Mitjahm Simmons
Production: Jessica Kashiwabara
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