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Starz Encore Gears Up For High-Def

With Starz Encore slated to begin offering HD services later this year, the cable network's technical crew is moving quickly to get the gear in place to offer three HD feeds and a high-resolution service, Starz High Res.

Exactly how many hours of HD programming will be delivered depends largely on the studios that supply content. "We'll get as many HD masters as we can," says John Beyler, Starz Encore Group senior vice president, technology operations.

Equipment ordered

The network has ordered a lot of the equipment, he says. It includes Panasonic D-5 videotape recorders for ingesting the masters, about 150 hours of additional Pinnacle MediaStream server storage for on-air playback, Motorola HD encoders to get the signal out to cable MSOs, and a Teranex downconverter to prepare the Starz High Res service.

Beyler has been involved with HD before. He helped HBO make the move when he was director of engineering there, and he also had experience with HD while working for CBS. But technological advances will make this transition simpler.

An easier transition

"A move like this is easier now because the equipment is a known commodity, and we won't be necessarily inventing everything as we go along," he says. "Also pricing of equipment has fallen, and it's also matured. So I'm really hopeful this will be easier than it was seven years ago."

Starz will have three HD feeds: the East Coast feed, the West Coast feed and a new channel called Sharper Movies HD. The high-resolution service will be a 480i downconvert of 1080i signals, which the network believes will be an attractive option for cable systems that find themselves short of bandwidth.

"We'll wind up with good images on High Res," says Beyler, "because we're starting with HD quality."

Once the HD masters come in, he explains, they'll be transferred from the D5 decks to a Sony PetaSite storage system. The movies will stay on that system until they are sent over Fibre Channel to the Pinnacle MediaStream 700 server. About 150 hours of storage will be available on that server, he says, enough content for two days of HD telecasts.

Planned ahead

One bit of long-range planning has already come in to play. When Starz moved into a new facility about a year ago, the patch bays and routing gear were HD-ready or upgradable. "HD is something that engineers enjoy working on," Beyler points out. "I don't anticipate any problems, but I'm sure we'll find some along the way. But we have a good team in place to deal with those."

Serious work on the HD facility will begin in a month. Plans call for the services to be available by year's end.