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Riding the Wave From Digital to HD to 4K — Timing Is Everything

Barbara Jaffe, the recently retired former HBO executive, had a front seat during key phases of cable’s video evolution — an evolution that was often led by the premium programmer.

She was there during the days of analog and for the shift to satellite delivery, the digital renaissance and the multiplexes that came with it, the rise of high-definition TV, and the emergence of video streaming and authenticated TV Everywhere services like HBO Go.

And she, like many readers of The Wire, saw what a dud 3DTV turned out to be.

Jaffe, previously the executive vice president of technology operations at HBO who retired in 2013, is now watching from the sidelines as her former employer and the entire pay TV industry wrestles with the “next big thing” — Ultra HD/4K video.

While HBO was out in front with digital and HD, viewing them as strategic moves that also enhanced the value of the service, the programmer has yet to announce any plans to develop a 4K offering.

Jaffe, who spoke last Thursday (July 23) at the “Tech It Out” program put on by the Philadelphia chapter of Women in Cable Telecommunications, said HBO and other programmers are facing similar questions with UHD as they did with HD. The conversion will cost a pretty penny, but can those costs be justified, and will the transition enhance the consumer’s price/value perception of the underlying service?

“This one [the move to UHD] is going to be different, because it’s going to be very expensive,” she said during a one-on-one talk with independent analyst and Multichannel News contributor Leslie Ellis. “Can we afford it, and is it worth it?”

Programmers of all shapes and sizes are mulling that now. And once they make the decision they also have to consider how they are going to sell and market it. Netflix, as one example, is delivering a small library of 4K fare over-the-top. For programmers, it might not be that simple.

“You really want a full channel,” Jaffe said. “HBO is a brand, not just a show.”

But UHD, like other tech-focused advanced services, is like catching a wave. “You want to time it just right,” Jaffe told Ellis (who’s a surfing enthusiast), noting that HBO has been particularly adept at this over the years.

Another area HBO seems to have timed out properly is the consumer shift toward video streaming and viewing on mobile devices. Following HBO Go, its authenticated TV Everywhere service, the programmer has since launched its standalone offering, HBO Now, which is primarily targeted to broadband-only households and distributed through partners such as Apple, Cablevision Systems and Google.

Jaffe, who helped launch HBO Go, believes there’s a marketplace for HBO Now. Plus, the programmer was able to get it the OTT service off the ground “without alienating the industry,” she said. “That was a huge accomplishment.”

— Jeff Baumgartner

Time Doesn’t Fly When It Comes to Merger Approvals

The Federal Communications Commission’s informal, 180-day shot clock on vetting media mergers clearly employs a flexible approach to keeping time, if the newly approved AT&T-DirecTV deal is any measure.

On July 23, the day before the approval was announced, the clock was still stopped on day 170. As it had been since March 13, when it was stopped for the second time — ostensibly awaiting a court decision on third-party access to programming contracts that came out in April.

In the interim, FCC sources said the commission had still been collecting documents, though why that would necessitate not restarting the clock was not clear. Document collection and review is part of the process.

That stoppage continued even though FCC chairman Tom Wheeler last week circulated an order approving the deal, which would seem to suggest that the agency had been busily vetting and negotiating conditions and proceeding toward a conclusion, which, in turn, suggest s the clock should have been ticking right along with it.

The FCC’s July 24 approval announcement ultimately met the 180-day “informal” target for vetting the deal — the commissioners had only to vote for it for the deal to be done. Except that the clock started on Aug. 7, 2014, so it ended up being about double that time, measured in days in which merging parties are trying to get their deals done.

The FCC said on its website that “the 180-day clock represents a good-faith undertaking by the commission to complete action on assignment and transfer of control applications within a certain timeframe,” though one that is clearly mutable. It adds the caveat that “the commission reserves the right to restart the clock as it believes will best serve the public interest.”

“With the staff order in front of the commissioners, there is no reason to restart the clock,” an FCC spokesperson told The Wire, with a reminder that the clock is an “aspirational goal and not binding.”

— John Eggerton