Advertising in high-definition still fuzzy

Production companies here say advertisements they've produced using high-definition technology are being held hostage by local television affiliates that have no way of showing them.

The TV stations counter that they're working as fast as they can to get up to speed, but that's no consolation to several local production companies that invested $150,000 to $200,000 to produce HD ads they thought local stations could show this spring and summer.

"We were told this would happen as early as April," said John Scofield, president of Indianapolis-based Scofield Editorial. "We're still waiting, and we don't know what the story is."

Although Scofield has shot some HD ads for clients in Chicago and Cleveland, where they're more likely to find an outlet, most of the firm's business is in central Indiana. Until local stations can air the ads, the firm has no way to recoup its investment. And the ads that have been shot are growing stale.

WTHR-TV Channel 13 last November became the first local affiliate to begin airing local content in high definition. Its studio newscasts are in HD, and new field cameras will soon allow the entire newscast to be shown in HD, but there's no word when commercials will be shown in the new format.

WTHR spokesman Jeff Dutton said the move to allow HD advertising would be made "soon and imminently. None of this HD stuff is easy," he said. "It takes months of research and planning."

Sources said WISH-TV Channel 8 is also planning to flip the switch on its HD newscasts, with studio and field cameras, but station officials declined to give a timetable.

Scofield, along with advertising agency Meyer & Wallis and locally based Thomas Productions, all invested heavily in HD technology to become the first local team to produce high-definition TV ads–for Community Health Network.

High-definition television is known for its crisp picture quality and clarity for even fine details, and better color and definition of light and shadows compared to conventional broadcasts.

The interest in HD advertising is ratcheting up, because the HD viewer is an "engaged viewer," said Frank Friedman, senior vice president in the local office of Optimedia, a division of advertising firm Publicis Group.

"High-definition television is very engaging, and those engaged viewers tend to be more active consumers," Friedman said.

And the demographics of an HD viewer tend to skew higher in education and income than the average channel surfer, according to industry research.

The downside is that ads shot in HD tend to cost about 15 percent to 20 percent more to shoot, produce and edit than traditional TV ads. Advertising agencies said cost increases will come down over time, but for now, shooting two or three ads in HD could easily cost a client a five-figure sum over the same ads shot with conventional technology.

The cost, along with the difficulty of getting the ads aired locally, is why Community Health Network and Ball State University are the only area entities shooting TV ads in HD so far.

If an advertiser buys the time for a national broadcast, it can get its HD ad in front of viewers, but the costs don't make sense for a company interested in a local or regional market.

"Stations in nearby markets such as Chicago and Cleveland are airing commercials in high-definition, so it's frustrating for our clients in this market," Scofield said. "The demand [for HD advertising] is really starting to grow, and it needs to get served."

Until now, most advertisers–even in markets where it's offered–have eschewed airing ads in HD. That's a mistake, said Josh Bernoff, an analyst covering the television industry for Massachusetts-based Forrester Research.

"What [advertisers who choose not to air ads in HD] are basically saying is, 'This is a commercial, so you don't have to watch,'" Bernoff said.

Industry experts said the contrast between high-definition programs and conventionally shot ads that still air around them is becoming so dramatic that the commercial messages look cheap.

"We spend a great deal of time thinking about media strategies that erase the signals that make people aware of commercials," Pete Demas, vice president of New York-based MediaVest told AdWeek. "Could there be anything more jarring than seeing your beautiful, 50-inch HD image slamming into a [standard definition] ad?"

The vast majority of prime-time network shows are now shown in HD, as are a growing number of daytime and late-night shows and sporting events.

In the last year, the number of U.S. households with HD sets has grown from less than 20 percent to 33 percent, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research. Penetration is expected to hit 82 percent by 2010.

Still, less than 2 percent of all TV commercials are aired in HD.

"The clarity of HD makes everything look so much better, including products, graphics and logos, that we think the demand for these ads is really going to grow," said Tim Wallis, Meyer & Wallis executive vice president and creative director. "When [HD] becomes more prevalent, the contrast between what most people see now and HD will be more dramatic, and I think you'll see the demand for HD advertisements increase dramatically. That's the way we're pushing."

Though local outlets for HD ads are scarce, companies that have them can play the ads on their Web sites. Community Health Network is among advertisers that think it's worth being on the leading edge.

"We thought we should take advantage of the most advanced technology available in broadcasting," said Sue Reimbold, CHN vice president of marketing and communications. "It's aligned with the progressive nature of this hospital in total."

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