Preparing for Next-Gen HD

Ready or not, the future of high-definition television is on its way. With hi-def TVs in fewer than half of U.S. homes, HD is still something of an emerging technology. But competitive pressures are forcing programmers and operators to plan for new phases of HD.

“The beginning of the next-generation HD is already here,” says Bob Zitter, executive VP of technology and chief technology officer at HBO. “Consumers already access programming at 1080p [resolution quality via Blu-ray disks, Internet downloads or home camcorders] that is better quality than [the 720p or 1080i formats] any broadcast network, cable operator, satellite provider or phone company is offering today.”

Some even argue that these next-generation HD technologies offer cable, which has struggled to compete with satellite's HD offerings, a way to move ahead of the competition in the next three to five years. “You can get video from a lot of sources—satellite, telephone companies, over the Internet,” says Dick Green, president and CEO of CableLabs, which is actively helping cable operators explore the potential of several newer formats, including 3D HD. “So it is important for us to look at how the cable industry can enhance the video product and differentiate ourselves from our competitors with our video product.”

Some next-generation technology involves delivery of stereoscopic 3D images, a format already being used in theaters. There are currently about 1,600 digital theaters capable of presenting 3D films or events, up from 500 in 2007, and the number of screens is expected to hit 4,000 by year-end, estimates Michael Lewis, CEO and chairman of RealD, a provider of 3D technology to theaters.

“In the movies, 3D is simply here,” says Andy Setos, president of engineering at the Fox Group. Working with partners, Fox Sports has produced NBA, NFL and BCS Championship games in 3D HD for theaters. “But in the home setting, it is way experimental,” he says.

Then there is the matter of image quality and how to enhance it—either by increasing the number of pixels being displayed, which boosts resolution; or by increasing the number of frames per second, which improves the way motion is rendered in high-action sports or movie programming. New compression technologies are also allowing networks to deliver better HD quality in less bandwidth. For example, HBO and Hallmark Movie Channel have both adopted MPEG-4 advanced compression systems to distribute new HD services via satellite.

“Everyone is moving to MPEG-4 because it offers huge bandwidth savings and is much better for transport,” says Jim Bennett, VP of technical operations at Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel.

Over the next few years, some programmers believe they will need to move from the 720 progressive line and 1080 interlaced hi-def formats they currently use to the higher-quality 1080 progressive line format at 60 frames per second, which is the resolution displayed by most new HD sets. Others remain skeptical. “1080p at 60 frames per second would require retooling of the entire industry, and I don't really see the benefits,” Setos says.

Satellite operators Dish Network and DirecTV have broadcast 1080p pay-per-view movies that can be viewed by subscribers with new MPEG-4 set-tops, and cable network A&E has used the broadband connection in Dish's newest set-tops to deliver 1080p on-demand downloads of its new crime drama, The Beast. But delivering traditional linear networks in 1080p, which would include deploying millions of new set-tops, seems an elusive prospect. “Today, it is not possible for any programmers to send 1080p content over the existing distribution chain,” adds Michael Aloisi, VP of distribution technology, satellite and affiliate services at MTV Networks.

Still a number of programmers, particularly those offering sports and movies, are readying their production chain to support “higher” hi-def in the future. Many network primetime shows are already shot on 1080p cameras. Sport giant ESPN is also preparing to move up to 1080p, says Chuck Pagano, the company's executive VP of technology. It is building a new facility at the Staples Center in Los Angeles that will be 1080p/60fps-capable. “We are taking steps to get ready for the next generation,” Pagano says.

CableLabs' Green adds that cable can out-deliver the Blu-ray-quality experience because the sector can devote more capacity to it. “By the time we need to do that, we'll have solved our capacity problems with more digital and less analog,” he says. “That will give us a big advantage.”