While the ratings don’t necessarily improve when stations move to high-def newscasts, competitively, they have to or in the long run they’ll be left behind.
Although broadcasting news in HD has not yet proven to be a financial or ratings boon, some TV leaders say stations that don’t go high def soon will lose their competitive edge.
“The HD expenditures that we made have not resulted in any new revenue,” Earl F. Arbuckle, III, Fox Television Stations’ VP of engineering, said Wednesday at the HD World conference in New York. “But if you’re not in HD in a few years there could be a negative impact,” he added “People won’t want to watch.”
For Fox, broadcasting in HD means that all the Fox owned-and-operated stations have transitioned to HD studio production, he said. Studio switchers, cameras, weather systems and graphics are all high definition — though the stations have yet to switch their helicopters to HD, a move that Arbuckle said would provide “the most bang for the buck.”
He’s is not alone in his premise. Martin Faubell, Hearst-Argyle Television VP of engineering, echoed Arbuckle’s comments.
Though the benefits of airing HD news are not clear-cut, the disadvantages to not making the transition will likely become more obvious over the next few years.
“Is there ratings success?” Faubell asked, noting that there is no proof that HD makes a difference. “There are few and far between examples showing that you go high def and you win.”
However, not adopting HD — or even wide-screen production — certainly will be a bigger detriment as high def becomes more commonplace.
“If you’re still in 4:3 and your competitors are in high def, or even wide screen, you will give [viewers] reason” to watch other stations, he said.
Making the HD transition, however, may be more easily said than done. Though more than 50 percent of American households have large screen televisions — giving broadcasters incentive to fill them with specially-tailored, including HD, content — there is not necessarily enough money for stations to move full speed ahead in doing so, said Delbert Parks, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s VP of operations/engineering.
“With the economy and disappearing margins … the process has been slowed down,” Parks said.
CBS News tried to take advantage of the financial boost that comes with election years to make significant HD purchases in 2008, boosting producers’ appetite for creating HD content, said Mel Olinsky, director of operations.
With global operations, CNN is also making its transition incrementally, starting in New York, said Bob Hesskamp, Turner Broadcasting Corp, VP and CNN broadcasting engineer.
“There’s no way that CNN can flip a switch and make everything HD,” he said.
For a channel like CNN, with bureaus and equipment worldwide, transitioning to HD is a years-long, global process — something that’s mirrored in various intensity by broadcast groups domestically as well.
And while the executives said they are committed to forging ahead with high-definition broadcasting, the motivation may really be more about averting the negative impact of staying standard definition than making great strides by going HD.
“Nowhere could I find any numbers showing that being in HD would improve your ratings,” Olinsky said.
“But if you’re not going to carry your show in HD, it’s going to hurt you,” he cautioned.