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July 12, 2006

Dan Rather Presents: HDNet Focuses on Cutting-Edge Content

Mark Cuban's national television network HDNet has made waves among the technologically elite in the country for his all high-definition television national network, the first in the country. Since the network's September 2001 launch, HDNet has gained a significant amount of steam.

The network, along with its related HDNet Movies, now has clearance on most major cable and satellite providers, and is moving more and more in the direction of not just merely repurposing content from other networks as high-definition (especially as other networks move toward offering their own HD packages) but toward producing original programming as well.

The company already has a long list of series, including music reports and a news division. That news division got a major boost this week, as legendary television broadcast news anchor Dan Rather has announced that he will be joining the HDNet team.

Beginning in October, Rather will host a program called Dan Rather Presents, as the network moves from being seen particularly as a technologically driven novelty and into a serious content provider of its own. Despite Rather's recent problems at CBS and the discredit to his reputation through the story about President Bush's military record, he brings with him a name value and prestige that may bring a greater degree of interest and credibility in the news programming on HDNet.

The weekly one-hour program will feature investigative news and reports produced by Rather, listed in the press release as "completely uncensored." The release goes on to claim that "it will reflect the signature qualities of its host with a focus on accuracy, fairness and guts."

The move marks a key shift in HDNet's marketing that has been taking place, to definite itself in relation to its content and not simply the HD platform, which will see its originality wearing thin in the coming years. HDNet wants to market itself as innovative, and it is continuing to do that now by pushing that cutting-edge feel into content as well. In the press release, Cuban is quoted as saying that Rather will now be "finally released from the ratings driven and limited depth confines of broadcast television." Correspondingly, Rather says of moving to the network that "hard news needs backers who won't back down."

I've written here earlier this week about how journalists are debating how to best use convergence and about how journalism schools can train journalists in today's journalism environment. But this raises another intriguing question that traces back to the beginning of local television stations: how can a news department best contribute to a station's branding? Here, Cuban has found an important angle. Even as HDNet is using Rather to help bolster its station, it is blasting other networks for being profit-driven. The new direction of HDNet is focused on moving its cutting-edge reputation to content, and this press release demonstrates that new attitude. In all, it's a move that HDNet needs to make now before it is forced to, in order to retain that "cutting edge" feel.

And, while it's somewhat ironic that a 74-year-old retired network news anchor could be the one to help them do it, Rather's no-nonsense Texan personality and his recent reputation for speaking his mind about his disconnect with CBS may help develop a reputation for HDNet beyond their technology.

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