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HBO’s HD Entourage

HBO dramas like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under have long wowed high-def viewers with a cinematic viewing (and listening) experience. Its half-hour comedy series, however, have lagged behind, with favorites like Curb Your Enthusiasm jolting viewers back to the reality of standard definition and the 4:3 aspect ratio. But recently, the comedies pulled even, as Entourage, Lucky Louie and Dane Cook’s Tourgasm have made the HD jump.

“The difference is noticeable,” says Bob Zitter, HBO executive vice president, Technology Operations, and chief technology officer of the network’s first HD comedies. “Our desire is to increase the original series and programs we do in HD as HD sets are installed in the market.”

HBO offers around 80% of its programming in HD while sister movie network Cinemax stands at 75%.The remainder of the programming is upconverted. The decision to produce a program in HD is more an economic matter than a technical one. “It used to be that the trick was figuring out both how to do it and pay for it but now we’ve figured out how to do it,” says Zitter. Entourage is shot on film and mastered in HD while Louie and Tourgasm are shot on HD tape.

Zitter says the decision to shoot a program in HD begins with where the series is in its life cycle. “A series like Entourage has a couple of seasons on the network and it’s something we think will be around for a long time,” he explains.

Also impacting the decision is the ability to open up other revenue streams, like HD DVD sales and HD syndication. As the clock rolls forward and more viewers move to high-def, programmers with a library of HD content will be in a better position to take advantage of new opportunities.

“Today there is no ROI for HD unless you’re selling HDTV sets,” says Zitter. “So when a network looks at whether they should get involved in HD and the costs are in reach, they should looking into archiving in HD.”

Not only will content be future-proofed, but it will also see benefits overseas, where foreign broadcasters need material with a resolution higher than U.S. 525-line standard definition.