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HBO: On the Hunt for Trends

HBO is already well into its technology-purchasing cycle for 2003, says Bob Zitter, senior vice president, technical operations, so NAB '03 will be more of a trend-spotting mission than a shopping trip.

"We're already doing much of the analysis and assessment, and even some decision-making," says Zitter. "The people we're sending to NAB are a cross-section of engineering, operations and production people. They're there to gather information for future trends."

HBO has already embarked on a three-year project to shift its network origination facility from videotape to servers. While HBO already uses servers to store and play out its interstitials (IDs, promos) and international networks, its primary program origination is still handled by robotic cart machines loaded with Digital Betacam tape.

"We have 28 feeds of HBO and Cinemax, with product carried at different times on various feeds," he says. "So what we need is very different than one network that is originating one feed. We want a server for archiving and a network of airplay servers that are all tied together; we designed it that way for the interstitials."

As HBO migrates from tape to disk, advances in automation software and monitoring alarm systems, what Zitter calls "the glue that ties these systems together," are a big focus. Archiving is another important consideration.

"I don't know whether that will be videotape or data tape," says Zitter. "We're probably never going to touch the tape again once it's ingested into the hard-drive archive system. But we're going to want to keep a physical asset in case we have to rebuild things."

Zitter isn't sure HBO needs the pricey asset-management software that is often touted as essential in the nonlinear world.

"The justification for it is not yet there across an enterprise, at least not for us," he says. "It's expensive to do when you're tying together all of your content. What we've been doing is going after the low-hanging fruit. For example, our IT people have taken our still photo library and converted that into an electronic asset management system, which is basically an information system that tells you what you've got. But to do more than that, we still have not seen the justification for our kind of business."

HBO also won't be spending on production gear in the near term. Although the HBO network shows 70% of its full-day schedule in 1080i HDTV and Cinemax is slated to go hi-def later this year, HBO has no near-term plans to produce in-house shows in HDTV. One HDTV technology that does interest Zitter is the 24p mastering format, which would allow HBO to easily reproduce original content in different formats.

"It's equivalent to film, and you can create PAL or NTSC from it. As original programming becomes more important to us, we have to start looking at things we need to do in addition to network distribution, whether it's DVD or foreign distribution. On the production side, we're starting to look at things the way a studio would."