TV Stations Share Programming to Boost HDTV

Despite high-definition television's official debut last year, it still has virtually no audience—the equipment needed to receive it is still too expensive for all but the wealthiest early adopters. No audience means no ad revenue, and in the world of commercial broadcasting, no ad revenue means no budget for program development.

This catch-22 has hampered TV stations' HDTV efforts. The stations are under a Federal Communications Commission mandate to offer some HDTV programming, and, with limited resources to devote to doing so, have begun sharing with each other the HDTV programs they have developed.

Electronic Media reports that seven locally produced programs are being offered at no charge to HDTV broadcasters. Productions in the "Shared Programming" library of the National Association of Television Program Executives HDTV Consortium are available to members for the price of dubbing a tape—about $200 per program.

The organization, which has about 60 members, plans to increase the library's contents as budgets allow. Broadcasters have complained since HDTV's inception that the business plan envisioned by the FCC made little sense for them. Stations have had to find millions of dollars to upgrade their studios, with no certainty of return on investment. To some extent, the sharing of early HDTV programs reduces costs for all of them.

Among the titles contributed to the library are: KidsNews Network, a weekly half-hour children's show from WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio; The Cape Light, a documentary about moving a Cape Hatteras lighthouse, made by WRAL-TV of Raleigh, North Carolina; and Chronicle: Vermont's Molly Stark Trail, a travel segment from WCVB in Boston. Also in the library is Bridge Dwellers: The Bats of Austin, a half-hour children's educational show about bats living under the bridges of Austin, Texas, produced by HD Vision. WBNS has contributed two short episodes of highlights from the 1999 PGA Memorial tournament, held in Dublin, Ohio. WRAL has produced, a documentary for teenagers about a school website, and a 30-minute segment on renaissance Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio called Sinners and Saints, Darkness and Light.

Susan Dahlin, special projects marketing manager of Capital Broadcasting, WRAL's parent company, said, "It's helped tremendously to have these programs available, and we want to just build upon this list and get more stations involved." At this stage of the game, cooperation makes much more sense than competition. Ms. Dahlin hopes that stations will air the shared programming in "prime time" for retailers: at midday during the week and on weekends, when customers in electronics stores can see how good HDTV really looks.