Tuesday, November 10, 1998

Production Boutiques Spring Up to Produce Programs for HDTV

Nov. 10--In Randall Paris Dark's vision of the future, high-definition television -- known as HDTV -- will be as common in American homes as compact discs, personal computers and VCRs.

Before that happens, however, broadcasters need to show people programs on new digital channels. They also need the costly, hard-to-find equipment and production assistance to create HDTV -- the super-clear, colorful and superior-sounding format that's expected to end the era of analog televisions much like black-and-white sets replaced color TVs in the 1960s and '70s.

The broadcasters' problem is the reason Dark's company, Las Colinas-based HD Vision, and a dozen or so HD production boutiques around the country are poised to ride the HDTV wave to what they hope will be a lucrative future. As early as 10 years ago, they saw the potential of HDTV, acquired the equipment and developed the technical expertise to be ready for the change.

"Anybody that has expertise in this business can hang out a shingle and make some money on it," said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C. "That's a terrific business opportunity right now, I would think."

HD Vision produces programs specifically for HDTV, rents out the HD equipment and consults with the growing number of broadcasters that are adding digital channels.

"Creating original programming for broadcasters will be one of our biggest revenue streams," said Dark, HD Vision's president and chief executive.

Dark's library of HD films and shows, which he either produced, co-created or brokers, has grown to 25 titles, including sports, nature topics and concerts, since he began work in the HDTV realm over a decade ago.

Another Metroplex company that thinks big opportunities are brewing is Greene HD Productions, which is negotiating with 12 network affiliates to sell its new Birth of a Legend, a 12-minute HD program on the history of the Corvette.

"They called me," said Brian Greene, chief executive of Greene HD Productions. "It was unsolicited. I think that's evidence of the fact that people are hungry for true high-definition programming. That opens up really unique opportunities to provide broadcasters with the programming that they have to have at a reasonable cost." Greene declined to name the affiliates he is negotiating with.

Birth of a Legend will make its public debut Dec. 3 at Vandergriff Chevrolet in Arlington, where it will run through Dec. 6.

In conjunction with the Public Broadcasting Service, Greene and Dark co-produced Fiesta in the Sky, an HD documentary about a balloon festival in Albuquerque, N.M. It is scheduled to be shown nationally early next year, they said.

Greene, who has 11 years of production experience, founded the HD side of his business in 1995, after being sold on the quality and powerful potential of the new technology, he said.

He sells programs for $10,000 on up to $100,000, depending on how narrow or broad the broadcasting rights. Neither Dark nor Greene would disclose revenue figures, although both said their privately held companies are profitable.

WFAA/Channel 8, one of the stations using Dark as a consultant, bought the broadcast rights of HD Vision's Texas Wild, a documentary about Texas' wildlife regions that Greene co-produced, which it has been running on its new HD channel, WFAA-HD/Channel 9.

"He's introduced us to people that have given us music clips and sports clips," Dave Muscari, creative services director at WFAA, said of Dark. "It's a totally different business than we're used to, so it's difficult to find people.

"Fiscally, producing large productions to air to such a finite universe is not real practical," Muscari said. -- We don't have a live truck. We don't have a lot of field cameras available to shoot this stuff. Eventually we will. They've provided cameras and tapes and tape machines to us when we couldn't get it."

HD Vision also shot and broadcast the Texas Rangers home opener in the spring for KXAS/Channel 5.

HD Vision works not only with broadcasters but also with corporations and universities. Dark is filming an HD marketing piece for Baylor University. He also sees potential in commercials, product launches and corporate presentations.

More than 40 network affiliates across the country can broadcast in the new digital format, which is expected to replace the analog form by 2006.

But networks and affiliates are offering only a few hours per week of HD sports, movies and prime-time shows. Mostly, they are running their -upconverted" analog programs on digital channels, a strategy that critics say does not look as good as true HDTV and won't excite viewers.

Viewers are not exactly rushing out to buy first-generation HDTVs, whichaverage $7,500. Without viewers, broadcasters will have a hard time selling advertising on digital channels to support HD programs, industry experts say.

But local affiliates, cable stations, satellite and pay channels, and -maverick" broadcasters will buy HD programs now to offer viewers something different, said David Niles, founder of Colossalvision, a full-service HD production company in New York. The networks will follow suit, he said.

Niles compared the situation to the earlier transition from black-and-white to color television, which was kick-started by the popular western Bonanza.

"As Bonanza became popular all by itself, it sold TV sets," Niles said. "We are going to go out and search for that proverbial Bonanza and get to market. I think the home viewer will be there."

from Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News)

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