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Q&A: ION Media’s Dave Glenn

Ion Media Networks recently announced plans to make its Ion Television network available in high-definition and to upgrade its stations in their 20 largest markets for HD signals sometimes in the first quarter, hopefully before the February 2009 digital transition. The company’s other stations, its Qubo kid’s channel, and its Ion Life channel dedicated to active living and personal growth will go HD sometime later in 2009. Ion Media president of technical operations Dave Glenn talked to HD Update about the upgrade and the company’s decision to handle the upgrade in-house. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What do you need to do to prepare your operations for the launch of high-definition signals next year?

A: Basically we started planning about a year ago to provide the infrastructure to go HD and we’re now working to make that happen by expanding capacity of the equipment and purchasing the new equipment necessary to take it to the data rates and capacity needed to HD. We’ve had to upgrade all our encoders to HD encoders. We are expanding our playback capacity and our Omneon servers. We will be adding an additional satellite transponder as well.

Q: What format will you be using?

A: We will be using 720p. The reason is mostly bandwidth management. You get a difference of opinion with 720p but most people watch HD television off either cable or satellite and you are not getting 720p quality to most homes anyway. The 720p format is a very good compromise of great picture quality and bandwidth management.

If you’ve been to CES you’ve seen all those screens running identical content [in different formats.] If you don’t really know what you are looking it is hard to tell the difference. So I find it hard to believe that average consumer will see a difference.

Q: What is your timeline for finishing this all up?

A: We’ve finalized all of our designs. We’ve selected our equipment, negotiated prices and are beginning to place orders. It will be a matter of integration once the equipment starts coming in.

One of our major concerns was to be able to get the product in-house and get it integrated to the network operations center and rolled out to top 20 markets by the digital transition in February. Part of the reason that we are going only for the top 20 right now is the availability of the equipment.

Q: When will you be going HD beyond the top 20 markets?

A: Our plan is to continue to move throughout the year but we haven’t set a schedule. It will be a continual rollout throughout the rest of the year.

Q: Will you be using MPEG-4 compression for transmission?

A: Actually it will be in MPEG-2. The reason is that we have a lot of white area distribution with cable companies. We own 60 TV stations and have massive distribution through our own television stations but we don’t have affiliate agreements and we don’t have stations in every markets. In those white areas where we don’t have stations, we have agreements with hundreds of cable systems. So if we were to change our satellite compression, the cable systems would have to change theirs. They have a lot of issues that they are dealing with so it would be a lot of ask of them.

Q: What were some of the biggest surprises and challenges you faced as you went through this process?

A: It was a long process of planning. We didn’t see a need to jump into HD. We weren’t really in a hurry and that allowed us to spend a lot of time planning so there weren’t a lot of things that jumped up at us.

But one of things that surprised me personally and I think our whole group, was the differences between the manufacturers. We had a shootout between the manufacturers. We did scientific tests and we did subjective tests. In the subjective tests we had somewhere around 30 people watching identical material on identical screens and rating the quality. We were very surprised to find some noticeable differences between the manufacturers.

Q: By waiting you were able to save some money in the cost of equipment?

A: Yes, definitely.

Q: What prompted you to move now? Was it the upcoming digital transition?

A: It was really driven by the content. If you look at content that we were acquiring, it is great content. The production quality is very good and we wanted to start delivering in the best quality we could.

The immediacy of the transition plays a part but it also works into the fact that the content is better. People will be transitioning to digital so they can see better quality programming and we should be providing it.

Q: Are you using a system integrator or doing this in-house?

A: We have own integration crews. We’ve built our network operations center ourselves and just last year rebuilt it for this conversion. And we build all of our stations ourselves. We pre-wire and test all the equipment and we built it in the harnesses. Then we just take the harnesses apart and ship the equipment to the site. We sent one of our integrators to the site and it only takes him two or three days to get it ready to go.

Q: Why did you decide to do all this in-house when a number of broadcasters have been using outside companies for massive upgrades like this?

A: I think we’ve moved our master controls at most of our televisions stations 3 times now since I’ve came to this company in about 1990. We couldn’t find an integrator that could keep up with our schedule so we built our own team and have done pretty much everything.

We save ridiculous amount of money doing it ourselves because we do it very efficiently. When we first started doing this, it was taking integrators six weeks to put together a master control, assemble it and wire it. Of course they were doing it all on site.

We try to have a standardized master control for all our stations. We were putting them together and testing them in our integration facility in less than a week.

Q: How many people do you have working on this upgrade?

A: Everyone multitasks so it is not their only responsibility. We have about eight to 10 people that focus heavily on this project.