HDTV: Coming into Focus?

ESPN's new channel may give digital broadcasting a boost

Like the Information Superhighway of yore, high-definition television was supposed to change people's lives. That promise was made more than two decades ago, when the idea of HDTV was first floated in Japanese research labs. But in Japan, and then in the U.S., regulatory snafus foiled the rollout -- along with technical glitches, high equipment costs, and a paucity of compelling programming.

These last two problems, however, may be the first to get resolved. A new high-definition channel scheduled to be launched on Mar. 30 by ESPN could be a catalyst for HDTV -- particularly now that prices for the TV sets are falling at a steady clip. Sets now start at about $1,500, half the price of six years ago. For ESPN, though, one major challenge remains: It must get cable and satellite operators to carry the new channel. No agreements have yet been announced. ESPN has had a rocky relationship with cable operators, which complain about the channel's hefty fee increases. Still, ESPN execs are confident. "This [launch] will mark the next great wave in technology," boasts George W. Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports (DIS ).

Indeed, HDTV mavens have always pointed to sports as the best fare for showcasing the technology's trademark wide screen and supersharp images. And ESPN, with its family of channels reaching 87 million cable and satellite homes and its full schedule of live sporting events, may have the clout to finally sell fans on HDTV's benefits. "[HDTV] gives you a sense of being there," says Dick Green, CEO of nonprofit research firm CableLabs. "This channel could be significant."

The new channel, whose officials sponsors are retailer Best Buy and set manufacturer Philips, will start by airing three to four events a week in high-def format, using three state-of-the-art production trucks ESPN is leasing. Broadcasts will include NFL, Major League Baseball, and women's basketball games, says Bryan L. Burns, ESPN's vice-president for strategic business planning. And the programmer will work closely with stores to help promote the technology. "We need to help stores show the consumer what HDTV really is," says Burns.

Vendors could use a hand. Of the 106 million homes with TV in the U.S., less than 2% have sprung for HDTV sets, says the Consumer Electronics Assn. "It's always been a chicken-and-egg issue," says John M. Mansell Jr., a senior analyst at consultant Kagan World Media. Until prices come down, "you're not going to see a bigger push by some programmers into high definition." But ESPN could be the tipping point, Mansell says.

For years, it was the broadcasters that were supposed to take the lead on HDTV. And while most now offer some regular HDTV fare, they have balked at producing large volumes of pricey HDTV programs. They're also leery of airing shows in an easy-to-pirate digital format. A growing number of cable channels, on the other hand, are embracing HDTV. Discovery offers its own HDTV channel; billionaire Mark Cuban has launched sports and movie channel HDNet; and HBO and Showtime offer the majority of their programs in HDTV.

But the crucial test will be the potential power of live sports events. In the next few weeks, much may depend on how badly ESPN sports fans yearn to feel as if they are seated in the stands while parked on the sofa.

By Tom Lowry in New York

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