Not So High on High Definition

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A pretty tough crowd hangs out at AVSForum.com. Tough as in tough to please.

The site, which has more than 180,000 registered members, hosts discussions about high-end home-entertainment systems, including high-definition TV sets and programs. For some of these videophiles, even the best HD signals cable and satellite providers deliver aren't good enough.

Consider this post from early December: “Quite frankly, there aren't really any great broadcast or cable HD sources,” wrote GeorgeLV in the site's HDTV Programming forum.

In a private reply, GeorgeLV — whose real name is George Michael Harris — explained that what annoys him about HD networks is the frequent picture “smearing” or “macroblocking,” an effect in which fast-moving elements look like a mosaic of square tiles.

“I'd just be happy if HD consistently looked better than a regular, standard-definition DVD,” he told us. “On many programs, especially sports, it often doesn't.” Harris subscribes to satellite operator DirecTV's high-definition package and receives local HD broadcasts over the air.

PRESSING THE CASE

What he's complaining about, basically, is compression. Every HD signal transmitted over a cable network or satellite must be compressed. That's because a single, uncompressed HD stream at 1080i, currently the highest-resolution specification in wide use, consumes about 1.4 Gigabits of bandwidth per second — 36 times the capacity available via one channel in a modern cable network.

The question is, how far down can HD be squeezed while still providing a vibrant picture good enough to meet the expectations of the nation's growing ranks of HDTV set owners?

In general, an HD signal in the current standard of compression known as MPEG-2 gets encoded into 19.4 Megabits per second. That is several times the rate of standard-definition channels, which are typically coded at 2.5 to 5 Mbps.

However, to conserve additional space on bandwidth-starved systems, virtually all operators ratchet down some HD channels even further, to as low as a 10-Mbps stream, in a process known as transcoding. The AVSForum guys derisively refer to the result as “HD Lite.”

The practice isn't advertised, and none of the operators who spoke with Multichannel News would detail which specific channels get the treatment and how far down they compress the signals. But at least two major operators, Comcast and Charter Communications, both confirmed their systems use the technique.

“There's certain acknowledged manipulation” of HD signals, said Showtime Networks vice president of engineering technology Jim Occhiuto. “Today, it's more on the honor system by cable operators.”

And the honor system, so far, works because at this point, defining high definition is a personal matter. What looks fantastic to you might not seem so great to, say, George Michael Harris. But with TV screen sizes ballooning to 60 inches and greater, consumers are more likely to notice subpar image quality in highly compressed HD signals.

With a big-screen TV, “you're looking at the video signals under a microscope,” said Charter senior director of advanced video implementation John Roy. Take a signal down too much, and the video starts to blur, pixelate or (horrors!) exhibit macroblocking.

And if that happens, the wealthy subscribers who've spent thousands of dollars on an HDTV set may be inclined to part ways with their cable service, if the signals they receive aren't high-definition enough. This year, at least 5 million TV viewing households began to subscribe to HDTV services on satellite or cable, based on estimates of TV set sales from the Consumer Electronics Association and Leichtman Research Group viewer surveys.

Cable operators, then, have an economic interest in delivering the best HD content they possibly can, to attract and keep customers from defecting to satellite rivals — who are adding the capacity to be able to carry more HD programming — or, increasingly, telcos such as AT&T or Verizon Communications. And get this: One disgruntled customer in Los Angeles already has sued his satellite provider for poor-quality HD.

The balancing act for the cable industry is to continue to deliver more HD programming while not squeezing it past the point beyond which HD isn't HD anymore. And to do it at a time when typical capacity of 750 Megahertz (with some up at 870 MHz) is stretched thin already by the 500-Mhz analog tier of channels, not to mention new standard- and high-definition video-on-demand services operators are starting to offer.

Comcast, for example, in September initiated a major high-definition on-demand push, offering 100 hours of high-definition VOD per month, including at least 20 movies provided by Starz LLC.

“Ideally, [programmers] would like it if the operators had the ability to take the signal as is and put it on the plant,” said Gary Traver, chief operating officer of the Comcast Media Center, the cable operator's digital-services unit, which originates 79 channels from its location in Denver. “But everybody has a variety of challenges they have to work through in terms of how much bandwidth they have.”

TIPPING POINT

HDTV sets used to be toys for home-theater buffs. It's still not exactly a mass market: Today 15% of households have HDTV sets, according to research firm Frank N. Magid Associates.

But that's changing. Next year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, more high-definition TV sets will ship than standard-definition ones. For 2006, the CEA projects sales of 11.9 million analog sets and 19.7 million digital TV sets, with more than half of the DTVs sold — 11.2 million — able to display high-definition video. Roughly half of HDTV owners subscribe to a cable or satellite high-definition service, according to a survey by Leichtman Research.

The HD difference: Technically, as defined by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), HDTV is wide-screen video with a 16:9 aspect ratio and either 1080 or 720 lines of vertical resolution. Standard-definition digital television is 480 lines with a 4:3 aspect ratio.

The visceral experience of watching HD, though, can be like attaining 20/20 vision after a lifetime of nearsightedness.

Well-heeled consumers unboxing their HDTV sets under the Christmas tree will expect to be wowed. Philip Garvin, general manager and chief operating officer at HDNet, which offers two high-definition programming channels with news, sports and movies, believes the way to knock off people's socks is by delivering the programming without tweaking the signal.

The Denver-based network, owned by billionaire Mark Cuban and available to 4 million homes, would like its HDNet and HDNet Movies channels to be carried at 19.4 Mbps or higher. But the scarcity of bandwidth intrudes on negotiations, and HDNet doesn't always get what it wants from cable operators.

“What we're facing is: How much do you compress? We could argue about that forever, and there's nothing that we, as a network, can do,” he said. “It's highly unlikely that we can avoid [operators] decoding and re-encoding [HDNet's signals].”

Compression can be a bargaining chip in carriage deals. According to Doug Jones, chief architect of cable products at video-equipment maker BigBand Networks, networks sometimes obtain a more favorable carriage fee if they agree to have their HD programming carried at 10 or 11 Mbps. “That's all tied into the programmer negotiations,” he said.

On the other hand, bandwidth guarantees may be written into carriage agreements. Cable networks and broadcasters that are in a position to make such demands — including The Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN — require distributors to carry high-definition channels at about 19.4 Mbps each, according to executives at operators and equipment vendors.

That's true for ESPN. It transmits its high-definition channels at 19.3 Mbps and carriage agreements “generally require” that distributors carry the signal unaltered, according to Rebecca Gertsmark, director of communications for the sports network.

Other deals are more flexible, with “quality statements” built into contracts that specify a more subjective standard for what looks good enough to be HD.

HD distribution can be more art than science because certain types of video are more sensitive to compression. Movies or “talking heads” are usually good candidates for transcoding to lower bit rates because there are fewer changes between frames than in high-motion video.

But “there's no standard to say, 'I'm going to put this at 11 Megabits per second,'” Roy said. “It's programming-dependent.”

Sporting events, meanwhile, typically produce high-motion video that needs a full 19.4-Mbps stream to meet viewer expectations.

“You're not going to get cable operators monkeying with the Super Bowl HD broadcast down to 11 [Mbps],” said Marty Stein, senior director of marketing for the IP video-solutions business at Motorola, which sells transcoding equipment. “That would make all their subscribers mad.”

SEE YOU IN COURT

Mad? Try livid: A DirecTV subscriber in Los Angeles felt so cheated by the provider's allegedly highly compressed HD signal that he's suing.

On Sept. 18, California attorney Philip K. Cohen filed a class-action lawsuit with the Superior Court of Los Angeles County against DirecTV. His suit alleges the satellite's service was substandard for five high-definition channels: HBO HD, HDNet Movies, Bravo HD, Showtime HD and DirecTV HDTV pay-per-view.

Cohen specifically claims DirecTV compressed those channels as low as 6.6 megabits per second, and therefore they could not be considered HD-quality. Asked to comment, DirecTV director of public relations Robert Mercer said: “We absolutely believe that Cohen's claims are without merit.” He said Cohen's estimates on compression were incorrect but declined to provide actual figures.

Actually, in its current marketing campaign, DirecTV has asserted that its HDTV services provide better picture quality than cable. Recent DirecTV ads featuring William Shatner and Jessica Simpson carried this tagline: “For picture quality that beats cable, you've got to get DirecTV.”

Now Time Warner Cable is suing DirecTV in federal court over those ads, insisting the quality of its HDTV signals is at least on par with satellite. In a lawsuit filed Dec. 7, the cable operator said DirecTV's ads touting supposedly superior high-definition picture quality were false. (In the same suit, Time Warner also accused DirecTV of falsely advertising that certain games available on NFL Network would be unavailable to cable subscribers in New York and other cities.)

Time Warner Cable said in its complaint that its HDTV services “provide exactly the same screen resolution” as DirecTV's and that the satellite company cannot substantiate the claim of superior picture quality. DirecTV declined to comment on the suit.

But Time Warner didn't specify the bit rates at which it distributes HDTV signals. In its lawsuit, the company said it “simply makes available sufficient bandwidth to permit that level of resolution to be passed through to its viewers.”

CARVING OUT SPACE

So far, cable operators aren't in panic mode about having to pack in more HD channels to keep pace with rivals. Most cable operators carry about 20, as does Verizon's FiOS TV. AT&T, through its U-Verse TV service, last month rolled out 27 HD channels in San Antonio and parts of Houston. The leader for now is EchoStar Communications' Dish Network, which can deliver up to 38 HD channels.

DirecTV offers only 10 high-definition national channels, plus the popular “NFL Sunday Ticket” out-of-market sports package. But next year, it plans to have the capacity to deliver 150 HD channels, with the launch of two new satellites sometime in 2007. That would catapult the service to the head of the HD class.

But read the fine print: “Number of channels subject to available HD programming,” reads a footnote on the “Guide to HDTV” section of DirecTV's Web site.

Translation: There aren't 150 high-definition networks available to distribute right now. “The reality of the HD ramp-up for cable is that it will be based on competitive models,” Leichtman Research president Bruce Leichtman said. “You can say, 'I can offer 1,500 HD channels,' but it's irrelevant, because they don't exist.”

About 70 HD network channels have either launched or have been announced, according to Discovery Communications' executive vice president and general manager of HDTV and new media operations Clint Stinchcomb.

Discovery launched its first high-definition channel, Discovery HD Theater, in 2002 and will spend $65 million over seven years on its Atlas series of documentaries covering more than 30 countries. Eventually, Stinchcomb said, “the entire world will transition to HD. The only thing that's debatable is the time frame.”

For cable, the only way out of the woods and into the fields of 100-plus HD channels is to free up large quantities of bandwidth.

There aren't any cheap-and-easy fixes. The options are ones operators have been driving toward for years: shrinking or eliminating the analog tier; moving to switched broadcast video, which transmits a program only when one or more subscribers are watching it; or adopting MPEG-4 video encoding, which is roughly twice as efficient as MPEG-2. Each will require wide-scale set-top box upgrades or replacements, as well as new equipment in headends, to effectively reclaim bandwidth.

Until then, strategies for packing new HD channels into the existing plant focus on incremental gains.

Comcast has spent “an extensive amount of time” the past six months testing various HD encoders to figure out optimal techniques for re-encoding different types of programming, its media center chief, Traver, said.

In some cases, according to Traver, the Comcast Media Center has been able to clean up HD programming and not only reduce the bit rate, but actually improve the quality at the same time. For example, with a few programmers, the unit has been focusing on the quality of the source content for films before they are converted into HD.

Traver's team has found that eliminating noise (e.g., dust or cracks in film) prior to transfer to HD tape can cut the bandwidth required as much as 20%. “Most encoders are not able to differentiate between an element of noise and an element of definition in a piece of video,” Traver said.

Charter, meanwhile, is phasing out some pay-per-view channels as subscribers shift toward VOD, Roy said. That and similar tactics allow it to reclaim channels here and there in order to add more HD.

There's bandwidth to be found, too, in updating some headends' quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) equipment, which sends video signals over coaxial cable to a set-top box. Older 64-QAM technology provides about 27 Mbps of content per 6-Megahertz carrier — not enough for two 19.4-Mbps HD channels. By contrast, 256-QAM provides 38.8 Mbps: a bandwidth boost of more than 40%.

“That's part of cleaning up the plant,” Roy said. “It's core block-and-tackling engineering on freeing up space.”

ROOM AT THE INN?

For programmers, the bandwidth contention means that selling a new HD product to an operator may be even tougher than offering a new SD one.

“Capacity is always an issue, which means the quality of your programming becomes even more important,” Stinchcomb said. “You don't want to be kicked off the island.”

Consider the case of In Demand Networks. The pay-per-view and video-on-demand programmer is planning to merge its two high-definition channels, INHD and INHD2, into one as of Jan. 1. Prior to the announcement last month, some operators had already dropped INHD2, which offers some exclusive IMAX movies and live concerts that will shift to INHD. What prompted the decision? In a statement, In Demand said it was that “cable companies are pressed to offer a wider variety of channels to their HD customers.”

Turner Broadcasting System offers only one HD channel — TNT HD, which includes a mix of movies, TV series and live sports. But the company is actively discussing when its other networks should go to HD, said Coleman Breland, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Turner Network Sales. Other Turner networks include CNN, TBS, Court TV and Cartoon Network.

The conversation about HD carriage, Breland said, starts with an operator's bandwidth. “Negotiating in the HD tier is a question of availability,” he said. “As with any network, good content and well-branded programming finds its way on the lineups. Now it's a question of, When will someone have bandwidth?”

Which leads to the capacity crunch known as Rainbow Media's Voom HD Networks. Voom — initially envisioned by owner Cablevision Systems as an HD-heavy direct-broadcast satellite provider — is a “suite” of 15 HD channels with movies, music, sports, news, children's and other programming.

Voom's bargaining position is that a distributor must carry all 15 channels, or none. “We don't subdivide the service,” general manager Greg Moyer said.

To date, no U.S. cable operator has taken Voom up on the offer. In the U.S., EchoStar's Dish is its only distribution partner. (The 15 Voom channels are the reason Dish is able to claim primacy in the HD race right now.)

As for the bit rates Voom is asking for, Moyer would not comment, except to say, “There are minimum standards written into our deals for what constitutes an HD signal.”

Given the bandwidth limitations virtually all cable operators face, Voom's strategy is either quixotic or visionary. An operator “has to look at that and say, Do I take those and chew up a lot of bandwidth for channels nobody's ever heard of?” Leichtman said. “Or do I add six or seven channels people know?”

Moyer is sticking to his guns. He sees switched video and all-digital transmission networks as widening the window of possibility for Voom in the next few years. “Should one or both of those take hold, it changes the picture quite dramatically in terms of being able to offer more HD,” he said. “I foresee a time when the robustness of the signal will become a key marketing point.”

For now, it's going to be tough sledding. In at least one deal outside the U.S., however, Voom has broken its all-or-nothing rule: It has a carriage deal with Telenor's Canal Digital satellite service in Norway, which distributes the Voom Global channel. Here's the kicker: The channel goes out at a whopping 45 Mbps, according to Moyer.

So how's it look? “It is,” Moyer said happily, “uncompromisingly good.”

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