Fox To Go All HD, All the Time

Within two years, Fox's television network group plans to distribute its broadcast network and all of its cable services exclusively in high-definition — eliminating standard-definition feeds — with an infrastructure upgrade the company expects will double its satellite capacity.

The change will require all cable, satellite and telco distributors to install new satellite receiver/decoder devices from Motorola, although Fox for the time being will continue to offer the HD feeds in the widely used MPEG-2 encoding format.

“It became obvious to us more than a year ago that television will be HDTV, and that holding on to standard-definition distribution is really an anachronism,” Fox Group president of engineering Andrew Setos said. “The company realized it wanted to be on a footing to be able offer any and all of its networks in HD.”

As part of the project, Fox will convert its encoding and satellite transmission infrastructure to Motorola equipment, covering all cable networks and the national broadcast network. The value of the contract was not disclosed, but based on Fox's deployment plans it would likely run into the tens of millions of dollars.

Motorola said it would supply “tens of thousands” of DSR-6000 integrated receiver/decoders to Fox over the term of the deal, as well as dozens of SE-3000 HD encoders.

Fox will begin the switch to the Motorola-based HD gear on March 1, 2009, and is aiming to migrate all networks by the end of 2010. On the cable side, regional sports networks will move to HD-only distribution in calendar year 2009, according to Setos.

Fox will supply all broadcast and cable affiliates with Motorola's DSR-6000 digital satellite receivers. Those devices pass through the HD signal and also optionally downconvert the feed into a standard-definition stream with a 3:4 aspect ratio using the standardized Active Format Descriptor information transmitted with the HD content.

“Our affiliates are not going to be scrambling around to do much of anything,” Setos said, noting that Fox will not shut off existing SD feeds until all distributors receive the new IRDs.

Currently, Fox distributes all 19 of its RSNs in HD, as well as Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Big Ten Network, Fuel TV, FX, National Geographic and Speed. Yet to be offered in HD are Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Reality Channel, Fox College Sports, Fox Movie Channel and Fox Sports En Espanol.

Overall, the elimination of SD plus the adoption of the more efficient DVB-S2 satellite modulation scheme will give Fox roughly double the capacity in the same C-band transponders it leases today on two Intelsat satellites.

“The big headline for our company is we'll have capacity for 52 to 56 HD streams,” Setos said.

He said a challenge for Fox has been that “we can produce more HD than we can distribute” given the limited availability of transponder capacity in the market. “That was blocking us from achieving the goal of, one day, making all of our channels being available in HD.”

However, Fox is opting to stick with MPEG-2, which the vast majority of deployed cable set-top boxes use, rather than move to MPEG-4.

The newer format can, theoretically, cut bandwidth requirements in half, and other programmers have more aggressively moved to MPEG-4. HBO, for example, is now distributing the bulk of its HD services in MPEG-4, requiring MSOs to transcode the feeds into the older MPEG-2 format for distribution to existing set-tops.

Setos said the Motorola DSR-6000s are compatible with MPEG-4, so they're “future-proofed” if Fox chooses to change to that format.

For now, though, “On the cable side, our affiliates have all told us, 'We have a large quantity of HD boxes and they're all MPEG-2,' ” Setos said, “and we listen to our affiliates.”

In consolidating on Motorola compression and transmission gear, Fox will replace equipment from several vendors, including Wegener, Tandberg Television, Scientific Atlanta (now part of Cisco Systems) and Harmonic.