They could letterbox it. It's just that many affiliates don't have the capability of authoring AFD metadata.
Translation, no, ABC can't produce for 16x9 as long as that stuff happens. There are too many crappy converter boxes that never conformed to standards, cable companies that don't have their acts together and podunk TV stations that still aren't equipped to handle HD and SD properly in the same program. There are too many viewers that wouldn't get the letterboxed feed.
They already do.
I know they already letterbox. However, that only means they can move the bug - it doesn't mean they will.
Honestly I don't mind the placement of the ABC logo for ESPN on ABC. It's out of the way of the main action on the field. Plus it's a nearly transparent network logo. Obviously I'd rather have no logo, but I can live with this. Hopefully ABC will do this for all of their ESPN on ABC coverage.
ABC's HD Feed is much worser than ESPN's feed...the volume is lower and the picture is blurry. THankfully unlike ESPN, ABC doesn't freeze or drop out on most cable systems (fios comes to mind). Plus the commercials are in real 5.1 where as ESPN's is fake 5.1.
How much do they make from these channels? Are there any figures out there?
It's probably too soon to tell since it's likely not rated the same way other programming is. I wouldn't be surprised if the only way to tell if someone is watching is to cut the feed for a few minutes to see if anyone calls...
I dunno if ESPN on ABC is transitioning to 16:9 letterbox standard definition, but our ABC affiliate, KGTV is using that format today for ESPN on ABC sports programming. I can hope that this means a transition to 16:9 letterbox sd with graphics and framing for HDTV broadcasts. The top screenshot is the SD feed taken from Slingbox, the bottom one is the HD feed.
I just checked my friend's slingbox located in the Los Angeles DMA, and on DirecTV, KABC's SD feed while not in 16:9 letterbox sd, it is "squished" in where one can use the stretch setting on their tv remote and it would fill a 16:9 screen entirely. Those screenshots I took are from Cox Cable's San Diego system and I can confirm on my tv, that Time Warner Cable has it framed the same way.