HBO announced aggressive plans last summer 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 with Multichannel News contributor George Winslow about the company's HD strategies, and its decision to use MPEG-4 for the launch of the new channels.
MCN: Can you update us on how HBO's high-def offerings have developed.
BOB ZITTER: When we began, there was obviously very little equipment to make HD programming. So, we wound up essentially building a number of facilities on our own. Our plan was to increase the programming that was available in true HD as the penetration of HD television sets grew. 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. 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.
MCN: 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?
BZ: 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. 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.
MCN: What has been your timetable for deploying the 26 networks in HD since you announced that initiative last summer?
BZ: 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 March and we are now doing the last ones.
MCN: How quickly do you see operators making the transition to MPEG-4
BZ: 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.
MCN: Are you also planning an on demand product in high definition?
BZ: 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.