Until recently, Mark Cuban was best known as a former computer sales person, turned industry journalist, turned Internet pioneer who started Broadcast.com and sold it before the Web mania collapse for a ton of money. It was enough to buy the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team among other things.
But in recent months, Cuban's name and reputation have been growing among digital television manufacturers, retailers and increasingly, consumers as a sort of HDTV messiah. Through a distribution deal with DirecTV last summer, Cuban began offering the first all-HDTV-programming channel in history.
With its debut, scores of digital television owners had a station they could tune to most hours of the day to see for themselves the real reason they invested in an HDTV set or monitor.
Unlike the HD channels from HBO, Showtime, CBS or ABC, where the broadcast day is split among upconverted standard definition and full-fledged high-definition programs, all HDNet content is broadcast in 1080I all day long. In the late evening and early morning hours when HDNet is signed off, DirecTV uses the same channel to run select pay-per-view movies in high definition format.
Before HDNet, a viewer looking to watch an HDTV image could not always be certain anything was available at that moment. The station has been a godsend to consumer electronics retailers who needed HDTV content to show prospective DTV buyers, and to sports bars that had invested in HDTV equipment but rarely had anything high-def to show their patrons.
Although programming content tends to be skewed toward sporting events, and seemingly endless loops of pretty nature scenes, mountain bikers and promotional spots for leading universities, Cuban said he has been generating a rapidly growing and wildly appreciative audience.
So far, most of the live sports events carried by HDNet have included hockey and baseball, with a smattering of professional lacrosse games. It also recently cut a deal with NBC to carry Winter Olympics coverage in HDTV on a one-day delayed basis.
But, Cuban said, feedback he's received indicates most of the people who watch HDNet are not typical sports fanatics. Rather, they are HDTV fanatics.
"What we've observed is that when you become an high-def family, by getting everything installed, you become a high-def addict — you'll watch anything as long as it's in high definition," Cuban said. "You go from 100-channels and nothings on to CBS-DT and HDNet — end of story."
HDNet started with a schedule to air about 20 live sporting events, but that is ramping up rapidly according to Cuban. The channel will carry about 80 Major League baseball games in 2002, in addition to the Winter Olympics coverage, more National Hockey League, National Lacrosse League, and select National Basketball Association games. The company has two of its own HD production trucks to televise many of the events.
Plans are to start supplementing the sporting events with other programming, including movies.
Cuban's dream is for HDNet to expand into a collection of channels with 24-hour high-definition content, delivered by satellite, cable and even over-the-air.
"We will have an unwired network, comparable to a radio network, as opposed to being like a Warner Bros.," Cuban said, adding that stations won't be required to carry the HDNet name.
HDNet the company may one day ask subscription fees on some content, but Cuban vowed that the initial HDNet channel "will always be free."
Cuban said his plans are to work extensively with DirecTV (excluding DISH Network unless the companies' merger goes through) on a quasi-exclusive basis.
"As far as our work with cable goes, we are talking to them about high-end professional sports," he said. "Part of our deal with the NHL and Major League Baseball is that we are required to provide their (HD) game feeds to cable. We won't make the rest of it available to them, at this point anyway."
The rest of it includes a handful of feature films, and concerts and special events that are run continuously for DirecTV subscribers. In the very near future, however, Cuban will begin to offer HDTV titles in pre-recorded packaged form.
"When we get full rights to movies, we can also release them on digital VHS, without copy protection," Cuban said. "I think these issues over copy protection have become kind of a joke. I realize that might limit my ability to get the blockbusters. We don't expect to get The Perfect Storm and Star Wars, but at the same time I don't intend to sit around procrastinating when D-VHS decks are out on the street. People who buy them want content."
Other than concerts and specials, Cuban's D-VHS releases will likely include movies from smaller libraries and studios.
"Some of it will be junk, and some of it will be treasures," Cuban said frankly. "One man's trash is another man's treasure, so I'm not going to attempt to program what we release. We are going to let the market tell us."
As for distributing the HD tapes, Cuban said he will sell much of it directly from a Web site, and will look at "some high-end retailers" to carry the HDNet D-VHS catalog to support their D-VHS hardware business.
"Initially, we won't have to worry about creating tens of thousands of copies to distribute to all the Blockbusters of the world," said Cuban. "We will be able to duplicate for demand."
Cuban said after the recently released D-VHS decks have had some time to get seated in the marketplace, he intends to sell HD D-VHS cassettes at a $29.95 price point, which includes "a good mark up to get the consumer electronics dealers excited."
Like direct orders, dealer orders will be handled from the HDNet.com Web site, he said.
"We want to take things slowly," he said. "We may be back-ordered from time to time, but the good news is that because it's an emerging market, people will understand that."
As his business grows, Cuban said CE retailers can expect to see a lot more of him in the near future.
"We want to help you make money," Cuban said. "The most important element for the success of high definition television is the CE salesperson. We believe we've given them a tool to make their jobs a lot easier, and I'd love to help them sell more."
Retailers interested in contacting Cuban directly can email him at Mark@HD.net.