Hallmark Uses MPEG-4 for New HD Channel

For the recent launch of the Hallmark Movie Channel HD, Crown Media Holdings turned to MPEG-4 compression to save satellite capacity and transmission costs while preserving high quality images. Jim Bennett, vice president of engineering at the Hallmark Channel spoke about technical details and challenges in using the new compression tools. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What were some of the things you had to do to prepare your facilities for the launch of the HD channel?

A: At Crown Media we don’t own our own playout facilities. Because we started as a single channel provider, it just didn’t make sense to own facilities. So we were playing out the standard definition version of Hallmark Channel and the Hallmark Movie Channel in Denver Colorado at the NBC Universal Facility, which was owned prior to that by Sparrow Hawk. But for the HD channel, they didn’t have HD capabilities.

So we had to put out a RFP, and a company called Broadcast Facilities Incorporated, which is also known as Andrita Studios, in Los Angeles won the bid. We are using the Cisco MPEG AVC HD Encoders, [Model D9054] at the playout facility in Los Angeles. We take that [via a terrestrial link] to Comcast Media Center, where it is [added to our multiplex and] uplinked to AMC11 [satellite] with MPEG-4 H.264 [compression.]

We obviously have an issue once the signal reaches the MSO’s because none of the boxes are MPEG-4. So, I’ve worked with Cisco for the last year on a devise that they are calling the Cisco Advanced Receiver Transcoder [Model D9858]. It takes the MPEG-4 signal and outputs MPEG-2, which is how it is delivered to the MSO. We were the first to use this kind of equipment.

Q: You did that to save bandwidth and satellite capacity?

A: Yes. For my transport, I’m not looking at a real fat pipe. My signal only requires 10 Megabytes to transport from end to end. When I got to IP, it is even less.

Q: What have you learned in process?

A: First thing is that MPEG-4 is very stable. It makes great pictures. It is easy to transport. Remember it is wrapped in MPEG-2, so we know how to transport. We’re not reinventing anything there.

If my boss calls and said we need to put more channels in HD, we know how to squeeze them into the same transport stream without any degradation in picture or sound.

Q: You air a lot of great family films but I presume some at least were not shot in HD or in 16x9. How are you dealing with that?

A: We started looking at that issue six years ago. As you know we used to own a very sizable library which we have since relinquished to other users. But early on, I went through the library to see what elements we had that could be taken and used to create true HD. It was very difficult to find some of the originals and in some cases we couldn’t.

Currently what we airing from the Hallmark Hall of Fame collection will be either high quality up-converts or, when possible, we go back and remaster the content from the original.

The content that was shot in 4x3 we are airing in 4x3. We aren’t stretching it. We aren’t doing pan and tilt -- none of that stuff. The 16x9 obviously goes out as 16x9.

And it looks great. We have some great movies and great lineup and some great packages.

Everything I originate is 1080i. My MPEG-4 stream is 8.5 Mb per second. When it goes through the D9858 transcoder, my output to the cable systems is 19.3 megabytes. Typically the MSOs will take the 19 megabyte [stream] and turn it a smaller package. But what I see in control room and on the transponder looks mighty good.

Q: Are you offering any VOD content in high definition?

A: Currently, all our VOD is in standard-definition.

Q: Do you have any plans for HD VOD?

A: I’ve been asked to look at it [but we’re not yet ready to talk about any plans in that area.]

Q: How quickly do you see operators moving to MPEG-4?

A: We are hoping they move quickly. We are looking for the cable operators to deploy dual MPEG-2/MPEG-4 boxes. They are going in that direction for the same reason we did it at Hallmark. I save a lot of money transporting the signal in MPEG-4 rather than MPEG-2.

I can see them moving and adopting as quickly as possible but I wish I knew their time table.

Q: Is the cost for doing a channel in HD still more expensive than SD?

A: I think it is same price today if I do HD or SD. There is no reason to do anything in SD any more.