Rival companies rush to air HD

HDTV Networks has big plans to air high-definition for free across Canada, but it faces an opponent that has its own ideas, almost the same name and a head start

The small world of high-definition broadcasters is getting crowded, and more competitive.

The CRTC’s recent decision to review HDTV Networks’ application — for the first free national over-the-air HD licence in Canada — means HD programming might be easier to access for viewers.

The Vancouver company, helmed by Toronto-born businessman John Bitove, plans to broadcast HD programming free to Canada’s primary time zones, offering Canadian and foreign content, including news and current events.

It’s a big announcement, as viewers currently interested in HD-only channels must go through subscription services that definitely aren’t free.

It also means more competition for fledgling High Fidelity HDTV — currently Canada’s largest HD broadcasting and content company, founded by John Panikkar and Ken Murphy — which has long been touting HD as the way of the future.

The company launched its Oasis HD and Treasure HD channels in March 2006, adding Rush HD and Equator HD in September. The Category 2 digichannels are all HD, and run on Bell ExpressVu and on smaller systems including SaskTel, Source, Access and Bell-owned cable system VDN.

Panikkar says he is not fazed by the arrival of HDTV Networks.

‘We think that [HDTV Networks] has an enormous challenge ahead of them,’ he says. ‘But we welcome the growth of the HD sector, because that’s where television viewers are headed.’

It remains to be seen where Bitove’s HDTV Networks would get its programming. High Fidelity HDTV has an exclusive partnership with Rainbow Media Holdings, the largest U.S. broadcaster and producer of all-HD content.

‘[High Fidelity HDTV] is the Canadian licensee of the Voom brand’s Treasure HD, Rush HD and Equator HD. That means we have access to hundreds of hours of top-quality Canadian premiere all-HD content,’ says Panikkar. ‘Oasis HD is our own brand that we’ve grown, and we’re both producing and acquiring programming for it from around the world.’

Oasis HD offers programming about nature and natural history commercial-free, though ‘we are open to sponsorship ideas,’ says Panikkar. ‘We intend to be the first Canadian broadcaster to take a Canadian-owned and originated channel, Oasis HD, and export it internationally.’ Talks are underway in the Caribbean, the Far East and Scandinavia.

The company also has a full slate of new productions wrapping up that are set to air in 2008. In-house productions are focusing on higher-budget, international co-productions, explains Panikkar.

‘We want to show people the truth, while giving them a full viewing experience’ says director of production Craig Colby.

Ultimate Dream Day, a 6 x 30 lifestyle series, is in production for Treasure HD. Festival Bound, a 7 x 30 series also to air on Treasure, takes viewers backstage at local festivals. The 7 x 60 Pit Crews returns for its second season on Rush HD.

Next year will also see the launch of two new channels. Panikkar won’t divulge their genres, but hints, ‘you won’t ever need to buy another concert ticket.’

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This story has been corrected. Craig Colby was mistakenly credited as director of photography, not director of production.