Bob Zitter, the technology virtuoso who helped build HBO into a powerhouse cable brand, is retiring after more than 30 years at the premium network.
Zitter, HBO’s executive vice president of technology and chief technology officer, is credited with leading the charge on several industry firsts—including the adoption of satellite distribution, digital video, HD and video-on-demand.
To Zitter, the biggest innovation he’s been involved with over the course of his career is the transition from analog to digital TV.
“There’s been no bigger change in the television industry,” he said in an interview with Multichannel News. “For HBO, it meant we could do multiplex [services], which was important for our business, and digital TV has been a precursor to on-demand and everything that’s followed.”
Zitter, 65, will officially step down as HBO’s CTO on March 31, 2013, and will continue consulting for the company for several months afterward “while my successor gets up to speed.” HBO is expected to name a replacement for Zitter as early as this week; network representatives declined to identify the new CTO.
“Bob is one of very few in any industry where you can legitimately pose the question ‘what would we have done without him?’. His contributions in technology crafted the consumer experience that is taken for granted today,” Richard Plepler, newly named HBO CEO, said in a statement. “He is brilliant, insightful and a gentleman in every sense of the word. We thank him for all he has done and for the amazing team he groomed and leaves to carry the HBO tradition of excellence forward.”
Born in Los Angeles, Zitter moved with his family to East Meadow, N.Y., on Long Island when he was 5 years old. Originally, Zitter was planning to be a medical doctor: He attended Colgate University, studying on a pre-med track and earning a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1968. But he became hooked on electronic media when he managed the school’s radio station and then launched its on-campus television station.
Zitter joined HBO in 1981 as director of network operations. Two years later, he oversaw the rollout of the network’s nationwide satellite scrambling program and acquired the company's satellite capacity. Since then, he has led the launch of HBO’s HD feed, the first national high-definition cable network, in 1999; and the industry’s first subscription VOD service, in 2001. More recently he established the technology underpinnings of the programmer’s TV Everywhere services, HBO Go and MAX Go.
In addition, Zitter was part of the executive team that established HBO’s businesses in Latin America, Asia and Europe.
Zitter is the recipient of several industry honors, including the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s Vanguard Award for leadership in science and technology in 2004, and was inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame in 2008. Zitter said he’s actually taken more personal satisfaction when members of his staff are recognized in the industry.
“I feel proud I’ve been able to assemble a great team at HBO and what this team has been able to accomplish,” he said.
Before joining HBO, Zitter worked for Schurz Communications, where he ran the company’s cable system in Hagerstown, Md., before heading its electronic media operations. Prior to that, he supervised network operations for ABC in New York, where his first job was typing the network schedule for $85 a week.
He currently serves on the FCC’s Technology Advisory Council and is a director of the North American Broadcasters Association, duties he expects to relinquish next year. Zitter also is president of the board of the Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, Conn.
“When you love what you do and you love the people you do it with… It’s been very difficult for me to figure out, ‘Well, when do I want to stop?’” Zitter said. “It’s best to do it when you’re at the top of your game.”