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Discovery Starts MPEG-4 Migration For Five HD Services

Discovery Communications has initiated a project to convert its five MPEG-2 HD channels -- Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, Science and Planet Green -- to the more efficient MPEG-4 format in two waves, to save satellite transponder space.

The programmer is distributing Motorola Mobility's DSR-6401 (single channel) and DSR-6402 (two channels) integrated receiver/decoders for the transition. The IRDs provide automatic transcoding from MPEG-4 to MPEG-2, which is the predominant format used in cable set-top boxes.

"We've gotten to a place with our capacity where we're interested in increasing the efficiency of our [satellite] transponders," said Glenn Oakley, executive vice president of Discovery's Media Technology, Production and Operations group.

Other programmers that have undertaken initiatives to migrate HD channels to MPEG-4 include ESPN, which moved its HD services to the format in June 2011. MPEG-4 uses approximately half the bandwidth as the older MPEG-2 standard.

On Monday, April 9, Discovery launched MPEG-4 HD feeds of Animal Planet and Science, while keeping the MPEG-2 versions on the existing transponder. As of July 1, the programmer will stop distributing the two MPEG-2 HDs.

In the second phase starting Sept. 1, Discovery plans to light up MPEG-4 feeds of Discovery HD, TLD HD and Planet Green HD (which will be rebranded "Destination America" on May 28). Those legacy MPEG-2 HDs will be retired Dec. 31.

Discovery already distributes five other HD networks in MPEG-4: ID, Hub, OWN, 3net and BBC America. Following the final cutover at the end of 2012, two of the company's six satellite transponders will be fully MPEG-4.

In addition to providing better efficiency and potentially more satellite capacity, the MPEG-4 HD migration project also is designed to redistribute network feeds across different spacecraft in the event that one satellite becomes unavailable, Oakley said.

In 2010, Intelsat lost control of its Galaxy 15 satellite, Oakley noted. "That caused me to review... how can we be smart and strategic about what we're doing with our transponder fleet," he said. "In some cases, we had SD East and West and HD on the same satellite -- and if that went down, we would be in a world of hurt."

Discovery is distributing the Motorola IRDs at no cost to affiliates, although those launching the HD services after the project phase go-live dates will be responsible for purchasing their own decoder. The programmer has no immediate plans to discontinue its SD MPEG-2 satellite feeds.