Fox Television Entering HDTV Era

Former Chrysler Corporation CEO Lee Iacocca was famed for saying that, in the auto industry, a company "either leads, follows, or gets out of the way." Fox Television has apparently decided that where high-definition programming is concerned, it had better follow or get left behind.

On June 24, the New York Times' Eric Taub reported that, beginning with the fall season of 2004, the Fox Television Network would transmit "at least 50% of its prime-time schedule in HDTV." The development was revealed in a letter from News Corporation president Peter Chernin to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) media bureau chief W. Kenneth Ferree.

The embrace of HDTV by latecomer Fox is an indication that the format is truly here to stay. Fox had previously avoided HD, preferring instead to transmit its digital programming in 480p, or "enhanced definition," the equivalent of DVD. Competing networks ABC, CBS, and NBC already deliver much of their primetime programming in HD. The move to HD will require retooling at Fox studios and at its 182 affiliate stations. Should the changeover happen faster than projected, Fox could have HD operations running by late this year.

Fox will go with the 720p format, favored by both ABC and sports network ESPN. 720p is said to be better for sports broadcasts with lots of high-speed action. NBC and CBS use the 1080i format. The announcement follows one made early in June, in which Fox stated that it would offer major league sports to AOL Time Warner cable subscribers.

Analysts saw Fox's bow to the inevitability of HDTV as an impetus for cable companies to offer the service to their subscribers. Cable providers have been notoriously late coming to the HDTV party, much to the dismay of broadcasters and electronics manufacturers. At present, cable companies carry only about 20% of available HD content. Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff called Fox's HD move "a significant development, a sign that the acceptance of HDTV is accelerating . . . with Fox's embrace of HDTV, the company should now be able to strike carriage deals with cable operators for its digital broadcasts," Bernoff stated.