Five Questions for Mark Cuban

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High-definition television was on the minds of marketers at last week’s CTAM Summit in Washington, D.C., and on hand to talk about it was Internet-broadcasting and HDTV pioneer Mark Cuban. Best known as the hands-on owner of the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks, Cuban’s other business is the HDNet and HDNet Movies combination of high-definition channels. While in Washington, he fielded some questions via e-mail about the marketing of HD — and why it makes Dan Rather look so much better — from Multichannel News editor in chief Tom Steinert-Threlkeld.

MCN: Cable operators think they have got a piece of magic called switched digital video. This, in their book, gives them unlimited bandwidth, the ability to offer customers as many channels of programming — including HD — as they want and demand. True?

Mark Cuban: Yes and no. It’s true if they never get to the one viewer who gets shut out because there isn’t the bandwidth to deliver the network he or she wants. That said, it’s the right thing to do and a smart approach.

MCN: Cablevision Systems says it can do 500 channels of high-definition video this way. Then, to fulfill that promise, it [finally] adds 15 channels of HD programming from sister company Voom. What does this prove about HD, bandwidth and cable systems?

MC: Switched digital video is just like streaming over the Internet. It’s the model.

We can have an unlimited number of live streams and on demand programs — hundreds of thousands of them, as long as 99% of them aren’t being watched at the same time.

The real question is, what is the maximum number of simultaneous networks that can be viewed? Cablevision has a strong network, so it could be 500, but I don’t know. The risk of switched digital video today is, what if a competitor wants to make picture quality a competitive issue and raises the bandwidth available to each network?

MCN: People rave about the quality of a high-definition picture, even if they don’t have one. How can you build a market for HD programming when they think they already have it?

MC: If customers were required to upgrade their systems to get color TV, there would be a percentage that were only black and white. Over time, these issues resolve themselves as people get used to the technology.

MCN: What’s your thinking today about what is programming that only HD can really make come to life, and how does that differ from your thinking when you founded HDNet?

MC: One hundred percent of programming looks better on an HDTV, if it’s shown in 1080i HD [rather] than if it’s shot on film, 720p or [standard-definition] video [formats]. No exceptions. Great content still has to be great content, but for those 25 million homes that have HDTVs and get HD content, the advantage will always go to the pure HD program. Which is why in our research from TNS, we show that HDNet is getting sampled early and often, and viewers are sticking with our programming. We are getting 8-plus shares, which ain’t bad.

What the research also shows is that if a show is in SD and simulcast as an upconvert in HD, the viewers will probably just watch the SD channel, meaning that simulcasts with no true HD are a waste of bandwidth.

Unfortunately, for many networks, that can’t change, no matter how much they try to convince distributors. The reason is that if 25 million more homes get HD programming, more than 75 million don’t, and that is the bread and butter of the networks. So they have to make sure that all of their programming is SD-friendly rather than leveraging the high-definition medium, which puts them at a huge disadvantage.

MCN: Why is Dan Rather any better in high def than in standard def?

MC: Have you watched it? Seeing the hills of Mexico, or the wounded at Walter Reed, or a tank firing across the screen with 5.1 sound. It adds an amazing level of detail and emotional impact. It’s incredible. Dan Rather Reports blows away anything on TV in every way.