Following much planning, Discovery’s HD Theater is now a reality. The 24-hour high-definition channel debuted in June 2002 on EchoStar’s dish satellite network, making DCI one of the first U.S. TV companies to deliver HD content.
One of the challenges facing the new channel is to find enough programming for the next year. At launch, DCI had just over 100 hours of high-def programming in its library – including The Mystery of the Alaskan Mummies and When Dinosaurs Roamed America – and another 55 hours were under way. John Ford, president of DCI’s New Media Group, says that this should be enough to deliver repeating three-hour blocks (the current model) well into 2003, but a great deal more programming will be needed to meet the goal of six-hour blocks by 2004. As a result, he is searching the globe for non-fiction HD content.
‘There’s not much in Europe, but a great deal in Japan and a fair bit in the U.S.,’ Ford notes. However, he adds, ‘there are cultural issues with using Japanese programs, and many don’t work for us without substantial reversioning.’ Consequently, U.S.-based independent producers have a window of opportunity, particularly if they have projects that were shot in HD, but posted in standard definition on DigiBeta. Ford says his New Media Group will pay the cost of remastering a program in high definition, if the program and the price are right.
Discovery’s five major channels – Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Discovery Health, TLC and Travel Channel – will also work closely with the New Media Group to identify projects that lend themselves to HD presentation. Ford says the best fit will be stories with broad panoramas, lots of color and evergreen content.
Only new projects that have the green light from one of the ‘big five’ will be considered for supplemental funding by the New Media Group. DCI execs will work with the producers to ascertain the additional cost of shooting and delivering in HD, such as tape stock, camera/accessory rentals, 5.1 audio, graphics and higher hourly post-production charges. According to Ford, delivering a program in HD typically inflates production budgets by as much as 20% (anywhere from US$40,000 to $300,000).
Another promising source of programming for HD Theater is IMAX films, of which Discovery owns several. Observes Ford, ‘We just completed the world’s first IMAX-to-HD transfer of Africa’s Elephant Kingdom, and the results were breathtaking. HD preserves the incredible detail captured on 65mm film.’ The IMAX films will remain intact at their original 40-minute length. ‘Because we’re subscription-driven and don’t have to run a slate of ads, we’re not locked into 30 and 60-minute time slots. Instead, we can run films of varying lengths, like other pay services do, which opens up new options,’ he explains.
While most of HD Theater’s programming currently consists of one-offs and a few mini-series, that may change. Says Ford, ‘We’re doing a lot of experimenting with the program mix to see what viewers like best. We’ll also be adding some of our most popular analog series in the near future.’ The Jeff Corwin Experience (Animal Planet), Great Books and Understanding (both TLC) will be among the first DCI series to run on HD Theater.
To facilitate the transition to HD, DCI has been gearing up – literally. The company built an edit suite and stocked it with Avid’s HD DS and Teranex’s Xantus (an HDTV up-converter); it also purchased a couple of Sony F900 HDCAMs. The equipment will be used to help offset rental costs for some commissioned projects, as well as for making in-house productions and promotions.
On another front, the New Media Group is pursuing means to up-convert at least part of Discovery’s huge library to HD. Says Ford, ‘We’re experimenting intensively with new technologies. They haven’t panned out yet, but if they do, it will be like finding the Holy Grail.’