•Expedition Safari, a series on the Versus HD network, takes viewers from Alaska to South Africa to track bear, antelope and caribou and to fish for salmon. "This is a genre made for high-definition," says network president Gavin Harvey, "when you think of the (widescreen) aspect ratio that HD brings to the landscape and the great outdoors, as well as the color and vibrancy."
•CNN, which launched its HD channel last month, plans high-definition broadcasts of news events such as Wednesday's debate of Republican presidential candidates at 8 p.m. ET from St. Petersburg, Fla. (The network also televised the Nov. 15 Democratic debate from Las Vegas.)
But it began its programming in October with the two-part Planet in Peril, which sent hosts Anderson Cooper, Sanjay Gupta and Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin to exotic locales in Africa, China and Greenland. Other HD news specials in the works for 2008 include Black in America (expected to air in April) and Transgender.
•Discovery Channel is re-airing Planet Earth on Sundays at 8 ET/PT on its standard-definition channel as well as its HD counterpart, with two episodes a week until Dec. 16. The series, which was broadcast this spring, has sold more than 170,000 copies on high-definition video discs, at $100 a set, making it the top revenue-generating HD title so far.
"The pristine quality of the footage shows high-def at its best," says Judith McCourt of entertainment research firm Redhill Group. "It brings television viewing to a new level, letting you see and experience things you have never seen before."
•The History Channel's Lost Book of Nostradamus, which drew the network's highest ratings ever when it premiered late last month, "was shot all over the world," says Nancy Dubuc of The History Channel, which began producing its programs in high-def in early 2004. "Everything we do tends to take a global, visual view of things or has an action element. (With high-definition), the program just gets a fuller cinematic experience. It's much richer, clearer and brilliant."
The masses catch on
HDTV broadcasts began soon after the first sets were sold in 1998; since 2004, most prime-time scripted network programming has been available in high-definition. Early adopters watched special events such as the Super Bowl, college basketball's Final Four and the Olympics.
But it has taken until now for the HD audience to reach critical mass. Prices for the sexy flat-panel screens have dropped from $5,000 and up in 2002 to below $1,000 for some this year. As a result, about 32% of U.S. homes — or nearly 37 million households — now have high-definition sets, the Consumer Electronics Association says.
And this is prime TV-buying season. Last year, TV sales during the week of Thanksgiving and the post-holiday shopping weekend accounted for more than 19% of all TV sales for the year, according to market research firm DisplaySearch.
Also driving sales: the government-ordered deadline on Feb. 17, 2009, for broadcasters to finish the transition to digital television. As more shoppers see the value in springing for HD sets — rather than less expensive and lower-resolution "standard-definition" digital sets — they are more likely also to be in the market for premium programming subscriptions.
So cable and satellite systems are adding HD programming as quickly as they can to woo and keep subscribers.