There were some NHL highlights playing on a large screen television at a local Best Buy store, and it was grabbing everyone’s attention. Goalie fights often do that.
This one was a scuffle between New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro and New York Rangers goalie Al Montoya during a recent preseason game between the longtime rival teams. It was a real yard sale, as they say. Gear everywhere sitting amid clumps of sparkling white powder.
“What is that?” a woman asked as she pointed at the ice surface on the screen.
“Snow?” she exclaimed. “You can actually see the snow on the ice?”
The salesman smiled. Cha-ching. Ring up another sale.
This is the symbiotic relationship the NHL hopes to continue with high-definition technology. The game sells the product, and the product, in turn, sells the game.
Rangers’ veteran Brendan Shanahan has an HDTV in his Manhattan apartment and knows the importance of the HD broadcasts for the NHL.
“It helps every sport, hockey for sure, especially for the fans who said they couldn’t follow the puck,” Shanahan said. With the wide screen, Shanahan adds, “you’re able to see more of the ice and watch plays develop.”
The NHL has always believed it has a great product. The increase in arena attendance proves the game’s entertainment value. But the longtime struggle for the league’s many broadcast partners over the years has been in translating that entertainment value onto TV. With the clarity of high-definition broadcasts, which show the game in a
16:9 aspect ratio (the same as a movie theater screen) there is far less lost in the translation than with the traditional analog (4:3) television.
The crispness of the picture – 1920 x 1080 visible lines of pixels as compared to 704 x 480 on a regular television – also helps with following the puck and reading names and numbers on the backs of the uniforms and even seeing facial expressions all the way down to beads of sweat, the whiskers on a playoff beard, and, yes, snow on the ice.
“It’s always been said we have the most exciting game in person and TV hasn’t always translated that excitement. HD television will do that,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in April 2006 as a guest on CNBC’s Wall Street Journal Show. “Not only can you see the puck more clearly, if that’s what you want to do, the wide aspect ratio lets you see more of the game and more of the speed.”
Bettman has pushed the HD technology with his broadcast partners to the point where all games on NBC and just about every game on the league’s cable network partner, Versus, this season will be available in HD. The studio broadcasts for NBC and Versus will also be in high-definition.
One of the biggest criticisms of the embattled Versus deal has been that there were too few games broadcast in high-def. Comcast, which owns Versus, answered the criticism by forming an HD channel specifically for Versus (and shared with Comcast’s Golf Channel).
As a result, Marc Fein, the senior vice president of programming and production for Versus, said the commitment to high-definition will be there this season. Having the studio show, “Hockey Central,” broadcast in HD “is a nice big step for us,” Fein said.
The NHL also has a broadcast agreement with Mark Cuban’s HDNet, which broadcasts everything in high-definition. HDNet is in its sixth year with the NHL and will broadcast Thursdays and Saturdays on a flexible schedule.
HD isn’t a brand new technology, but it is still in its early stages. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, digital television sales brought in over $20.5 billion in 2006, which was a 30 percent increase over 2005. In July 2007, three of every 10 U.S. households contained at least one HD television. However, here's where the technology hasn’t totally caught on yet: of those homes with an HDTV, only 44 percent actually receive an HD signal from its cable operator. Industry experts believe there will soon come a time when HD televisions are the only type available on the market. Some companies have already prepared to stop making analog TVs altogether.
For some, it’s a matter of being financially ready for an upgrade. For others, all it takes is seeing a game in high definition.
Craig Pinto, an avid Islanders fan who plays men’s league hockey on Long Island, said he was over at a friend’s house when he saw hockey in high-definition for the first time. He immediately went to the store and bought his own HDTV, just in time for the season.
“I just remember being able to see the ice spray clearly,” Pinto, 30, said. “I thought it was the sickest thing.”
It is this type of reaction that has the NHL also pushing its local broadcast partners – those who carry the games for one specific team in a specific market – to broadcast as many games as possible in HD. The leader in this is Cablevision-owned MSG Network in New York, which was the first to show games in high-definition. In 1998-99, MSG Network showed all Rangers and New York Knicks games in high-definition. That tradition continues today and, where available, includes road games.
“HD has become essential in hockey broadcasts more so than most other sports,” said Laurie Orlando, the executive producer at MSG Network. “Due to the unmatched audio and visual enhancements that HD provides, viewers experience an in-arena feel throughout the telecast.” J
Versus Looks To Build Momentum In Final Year Of Broadcast Deal With NHL
It’s not hard to find a hockey game in the United States, but it has been a challenge to find it on television.
Since the NHL moved from the ubiquitous ESPN to Versus, a channel buried in the digital hinterlands of satellite and cable services across the country, the outcry has ranged from the lack of availability to the lack of quality in the broadcast.
The alarmingly poor ratings – Chuck Norris’ World Combat League actually drew better on Versus than the NHL – certainly is an ongoing issue for the league.
But with rumors of ESPN’s renewed interest in hockey, Versus, in the third year of its three-year exclusive-rights agreement with the NHL, is doing all it can to answer the criticism and show it can do the job.
“We’re looking to build off last year’s momentum, where we saw a 31 percent increase in viewership,” said Marc Fein, Versus’ senior vice president of programming and production, “which we were very happy to see.”
The network, previously known as the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), is now available in 72 million homes in the U.S. Last season the network teamed up with USA Hockey Magazine to wage a campaign, “Fight for Your Right To Watch Hockey,” to encourage hockey fans to send a letter to their local cable operators and demand they add
Versus to the basic cable package.
This season Versus will show 57 regular season games, the All-Star Game and wall-to-wall playoff coverage. The network has the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final before passing the torch to NBC.
One critical improvement to the Versus broadcast was made by Comcast, which owns Versus and combined the network with the Golf Channel (also owned by Comcast) to provide a shared high-definition channel. High-definition broadcasts on Versus/OLN were sorely lacking in past.
Starting this season, every game on Versus will be shown in HD if it is available. The studio show, “Hockey Central,” will be broadcast in HD, as well.
There will be another notable change in the studio show, as veteran broadcaster Bill Patrick – great hockey name, eh? – will replace Bill Clement as the studio host (as he will with the NBC broadcast).
Patrick, a Columbus, Ohio native and well-known golf announcer for USA Network and an NBC sports anchor, has plenty of hockey experience, which includes nearly a decade as the voice of the Hartford Whalers and stints as a studio host for ESPN’s hockey coverage in the 1990s. He joins the returning analysts, Keith Jones and Brian Engblom, and promises a livelier show, which is in direct response to one of the major criticisms of Clement’s tenure running the show.
“For the viewers it’s going to be, what we hope will be more fun and entertaining and informative than ever before,” Patrick said. “A fast-paced show chock full of highlights and scores and personal features, predictions whenever they are called for.”
With the ESPN rumblings, there are predictions already being made that the Versus experiment could be nearing an end, especially if problems persist with the broadcast this season. So, yes, there is some pressure on Versus to perform.
“If and when we were ever approached about ESPN coming to the package, we would sit down with the league and talk about it,” Stein said.
“We are the exclusive cable home for the league and that’s the way it stands. If anything were to change in that, obviously the league and us would have a discussion about it . . . If [the rumors] ever surface, we’ll cross that bridge when the time comes.