High-Def Box Office?

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High-Def Box Office?

(The Bridge) With all 26 of its network and multiplex feeds available in high-definition and plans in place to launch all of its content on HD VOD later this year, HBO is the unchallenged big fish in the premium high-def space.

And network execs wouldn’t have it any other way.


“Frankly, the last few years our focus has been on high-definition,” Bob Zitter, HBO’s chief technology officer, tells The BRIDGE. “SD television is over. We’re going to keep on offering it because of the few million SD TVs that are still out there, but HD is what it’s all about now.”

In addition to high-def movies and live events, which have been available to HBO subscribers in HD for a while, the network is making what Zitter calls “a concerted effort” to have all of the new original programming on HBO produced in high-def. There’s a lot of content there, he admits, saying that HD originals are something they’ve been “ratcheting up” in recent years.

Why? Because these days they just don’t have a choice.

“As a premium network where people are paying extra for it we almost had to be leading the way in high-def,” Zitter says. “If consumers are willing to pay extra for something it’s obviously something they value. We would not be doing our brand justice if the networks that consumers could get for free were in HD and not us.”

A lot of those expectations have to do with the kinds of shoppers that buy premium television services. According to HBO’s own research, HDTV owners tend to be more likely than the average customer to subscribe to premium networks, indicating that the TV experience is important to them and they’re willing to spend as needed to get what they want.

“For us it’s about the ‘wow factor’ of HD, especially with sports and theatrical motion pictures,” Zitter says. “As screen sizes get larger we know from customer reactions that they will first look for channels in high-def because SD programming on a high-def set doesn’t look good.”

HBO’s high-definition push has been about new technology as well, as the network earlier this year pledged to offer all of its feeds in MPEG4 by the end of the year. Most cable operators currently offer HD content via MPEG2.

“We’re happy with the way everything’s working with that technology,” Zitter says. “That was new for us and we’re the first to use it.”

MPEG4 technology effectively allows programmers to offer more services in the same amount of bandwidth, enabling the expansion of HD offerings and linear channels without calling for upgraded headend hardware. The switch, however, does call for MPEG4-capable set-tops in customers’ homes.

The reaction from HBO’s distributors has been more or less positive, Zitter says, considering that many are currently using MPEG2 set-top boxes and will require trancoders to handle the new MPEG4 signals.

Says Zitter: “Over time cable operators will have MPEG4 chipsets incorporated into their new set-top boxes, and as that installed base grows in the next few years more of them will have MPEG4 down to the subscriber level.”
 

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