Q&A: HBO’s Bob Zitter

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Last summer, HBO announced aggressive plans to offer all its 26 multiplexed premium networks in high-definition. With the final networks now being transmitted in test mode and ready for launch at the end of June, HBO executive vice president and chief technical officer Bob Zitter spoke last week about the company’s HD strategies, and its decision to use MPEG-4 for the launch of the new channels. An edited transcript follows:

Q: Tell our readers a little bit about how HBO’s high-def offerings have developed?

A: We announced in 1998 that we would start HBO in high-def and we began the service in the first quarter of 1999.

When we began, there was obviously very little equipment to make HD programming. Very few of the movies we ran on HBO were available on high def. So, we wound up essentially building a number of facilities on our own. When we began the service on HBO about 45% of the total days programming was available in high-def, the rest was upconverted to 1080i.

Our plan was to increase the programming that was available in true HD as the penetration of HD television sets grew. Today, 80% to 85% of the total day schedule on our primary HBO channel is available in true high-def. Virtually all of the theatrical motion pictures are in HD. All of the HBO films and HBO boxing are entirely in high-def. We’ve been increasing the HD production of our series and we are hoping by the end of 2008 that all the new programming that we produce will be in high-def.

Cinemax followed the same path and it now has about the same percentage of true HD programming for the full day. But because it is mostly theatrical films, the percentage of true HD is about 98% in primetime.

The last piece is that we began in 2007 to take all of our multiplex feeds of HBO and Cinemax and make them available in high-def. We are finishing that up now and by the end of this month we will have 26 HD networks, which is all we offer.

Q: When you announced you’d be launching the channels last year, you were one of the first to decide to use MPEG-4. How did that decision come about?

A: We’ve always been very active in deploying new compression technologies. HBO was the first television network in the world to begin using MPEG-2 for digital transmission back in 1992.

Over the years we’ve seen some important improvements in MPEG-2 in terms of quality and bandwidth capabilities. For example when we began in 1992, we were able to replace one analog channel with 4 MPEG-2 channels. Today, the same satellite capacity that previously carried one analog can carry 16 MPEG-2 digital standard definition channels or two MPEG-2 high-def channels.

When we were deciding to take all 26 into high-def, we realized that if we used MPEG-2 it would require a very large amount of satellite bandwidth on our part and a lot of bandwidth from our distributors.

We also felt that MPEG-2 is an older technology and that MPEG-4 is getting ready for primetime. We felt it was meeting our standard for quality and reliability and stability. With MPEG-4 we could achieve the same quality as MPEG-2 with half the bandwidth or less. And, it is at the beginning of its life cycle. So, we felt it was a no-brainer and now you see other networks looking to go the same thing.

Q: What has been your time table for deploying the 26 networks in HD since you announced that initiative last summer?

A: Prior to November 2007, we had four high-definition television feeds -- the East and West primary feeds of HBO and Cinemax. To do 26 new television networks in high-definition took a lot of installation of new equipment and changing the control rooms that we use to originate our network. So we couldn’t do it all at once. If I remember correctly, we launched seven in November, another eight at the end of the March and we are now doing the last ones.

Q: You turned to Motorola for some of transmission and encoding in MPEG-4. Why?

A: We had been evaluating all of the vendors doing MPEG-4 encoding. The first thing we decided was that we wanted someone who could do it all. By that I mean, the encoding, the encryption of our signal for security, the satellite transmission up-linking etc. We didn’t want to have finger pointing between vendors. So that narrowed the field.

Then we evaluated the various vendors who did all of that. Quite frankly on the quality side, they were fairly equivalent. But Motorola had equipment early on that would transcode the signal from MPEG-4 to MPEG-2. That was important because our cable affiliates today are all MPEG-2 and would need MPET-2 streams of our programming to distribute on their cable systems. But over time, they would also eventually want MPEG-4. So, we needed equipment that could do both and Motorola could supply that.

Q: How quickly do you see operators making the transition to MPEG-4

A: It will take several years. Doing anything with MPEG-4 will require new set-top boxes and there is no reason to run out and replace the old set-tops. What many of the major MSOs are starting to do this year is to order new set-top boxes that do MPEG-2 and MPEG-4. That will allow them to do certain things in MPEG-4 for certain customers.

But something like HBO that goes to a large number of subscribers MPEG-4, it will take two, thee, four years for operators to have a large enough stalled base to begin using MPEG-4.

Q: Are you also planning an on demand product in high definition?

A: We have been talking to our distributors about this and are preparing to do HBO and Cinemax on demand in high-definition later this year. When we do that we will use both MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 formats. We will do the MPEG-2 first and then the MPEG-4.

Q: Even with the MPEG-4 compression, have you add to add additional satellite capacity for the 26 HD networks?

A: No. We still had an analog feed of HBO and Cinemax. We’ve terminated those feeds and repurposed them for our high-def multiplex feeds. There will also be one transponder for our on demand offering. With MPEG-4 and a new modulation technique [DVB-S2] on these transponders, one satellite transponder that used to carry two high-def signals can now have 8 to 10 high-def signals.

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