February 3, 2007
UFC Launches Its Mixed Martial Arts into High-Definition Tonight

Some fighting news that's been getting some coverage in the past week is that mixed martial arts organization the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will start making all pay-per-views, starting with tonight's UFC 67, available in high-definition. The HD initiative was first announced on Dec. 30 of last year, with this PPV being the first of the HD fights.

The company has been hyping its HD offerings as something demanded by the fans, which is likely not hyperbole, since sports traditionally make sense in HD. The regular broadcast is available for $39.95, while the high-definition broadcast will carry a $49.95 price tag. The high-definition version will be carried by both DirecTV and DISH Network, as well as iNDemand and Bell ExpressVu.

According to Dana White, the president of the UFC, the company has been shooting its fights in HD format since 2002 but did not have a way to distribute them. The plan was to create a fairly deep library of content in preparation for an HD launch.

James Hibberd, who gives strong coverage to the high-definition market for TelevisionWeek, writes, "Sports franchises have been early and enthusiastic adaptors of HD, yet UFC and World Wrestling Entertainment have lagged behind in offering the format due to their distribution contracts with cable networks and pay per view outlets that lack HD channels." He points out that, while the UFC PPVs will now be available in HD, the UFC fights and reality series that airs regularly on SpikeTV will not, as SpikeTV has still not announced any plans for an HD channel.

On the other hand, USA Network, where WWE Raw is aired, will start airing in HD in the fall, as well as Sci Fi, where WWE's ECW brand is aired. The CW Network already has programming airing in HD. However, while WWE has been experimenting with HD, the company has not distributed anything in HD yet, and none of the networks have announced plans for WWE to be among their high-definition content.

I wrote about WWE's debate on whether to go HD back in September, when they had a story up on their Web site about a non-televised event being filmed in HD in order to see what WWE would need to do to change their current production.

The company has said that, since most CW affiliates were not yet completely prepared to handle HD signals and USA and Sci Fi had not even announced HD plans at that time, that the first WWE HD products would likely be available in the home video market.

I wrote at the time:

The article gives a good idea of the various factors a company that does live entertainment events that are taped, as is the case with the WWE, must consider in making the conversion to HD. This includes hiring a makeup artist that will use airbrushing techniques rather than traditional makeup to better be captures in high-definition, changes in lighting, how the WWE's usual pyro will translate into high-definition sound and picture, and the necessary changes in audio when switching to 5.1 surround sound rather than the current system in standard distribution.

The WWE predicts "tens of millions of dollars of upgrades in equipment and a minimum of three years" to completely transfer their system to high-definition.

Of course, one thing Hibberd fails to mention is that there is a difference between WWE and UFC, and that is that WWE is a performance emulating violence, while UFC is real fighting competition. In that case, WWE has the added layer of difficulty in finding ways to provide a much clearer image without eliminating the illusion of the reality of its matches. (I know many of you would question the reality of most wrestling performances in the first place, but fans like to be able to have a "suspension of disbelief" that HD could help shatter.) So, as opposed to UFC, where there is no need for the cameramen to worry about "exposing" the product, WWE has to think about new camera angles and techniques to do everything possible to ensure that fans can still sink into the fictional world of sports entertainment, or else high-definition will get in the way of the fans' enjoyment rather than extend it.

In their press release about their offerings in HD, UFC writes, "According to Consumer Electronics Association (CES), 37 percent of HD sports fans frequently invite friends and family over to watch sporting events in HD, and 32 percent of sports fans stated HD availability influences what sports they watch on TV." I'm sure they are hoping to prove that with UFC 67: All or Nothing.