Starz Encore hits express lane

For Starz Encore, this year's NAB "is going to be a little more boring than most years," according to the network's Vice President of Technology Ray Millius.

That's good news for the cable movie network. Starz Encore is in the final stages of gearing up for a new high-tech facility that will house its corporate operations of about 350 employees, now based at the Denver Tech Center, and its Dry Creek, Colo.-based technical staff of about 120. The new facility will combine all operations under one roof in Meridian, Colo., just south of Denver.

"Last year [at NAB], we were in the throes of proposals, and everybody wanted a piece of our time," Millius recalls.

Now, with equipment purchased and technical plans in place, construction on the new 300,000-square-foot building has started, and Starz Encore is looking at a move-in date of December 2001.

"It's going to be a really nice looking building and a first rate facility," Millius says.

More importantly, the network will move from a tape-based system to a server-based environment. Currently, all 13 channels of its premium movie service, each with an east- and west-coast feed, plus all interstitial material, is played back from a Digital Betacam tape machine. The new facility will be able to accommodate 40 channels, leaving a couple of channels to grow after it launches its two new channels-each also with an east- and west-coast feed.

Starz Encore spent the past 18 months shopping for a video server vendor before finally settling on Pinnacle's Media Stream server, which offers a 141 GB disk drive. "Pinnacle's system has the smallest footprint," Millius says. "We've always had good experiences with their products in the past."

Last year at NAB, Starz Encore selected Omnibus as its automation vendor. The network has not yet made a decision on archive robotic tape systems and will probably make a decision before NAB, according to Millius. The network is considering systems from Sony and Ampex.

With all of those major decisions behind them, Millius is going with a short shopping list, and he's looking forward to a fairly relaxing NAB.

Millius says he will be looking at infrastructure equipment, including routing switchers, patch panels, racks and distribution equipment-"all the little pieces that you're going to need to put the signal path together," he says.

For routing, Starz Encore will be looking at the usual suspects-Philips, Grass Valley and NVision. He's also planning to look at distribution amplifiers for video and audio from Grass Valley and Leitch. "We're entirely digital, and we'd like to stay serial digital embedded," he says. Starz Encore uses logo bugs and graphic effects and, at the end of each program, a voice over that describes what you've seen and what's coming up next. "It's not very complex," he says. But with a bug box and a voice-over box for each channel, there is big potential for failure.

He's hoping to find a cost-effective network-based voice-over solution that will allow the network to have common storage for each programming channel. "People really haven't addressed that in the voice-over world," he says.

Starz Encore also will be looking at equipment to support its Starz Video on Demand initiative, a subscription video-on-demand service (SVOD) that enables the impulse viewing of movies for a simple, flat monthly fee. Starz On Demand subscribers are able to select and view a movie anytime during the month, with no "fee-per-view."

Millius is expecting most of the server companies to offer video-on-demand systems at the network level and will be looking at manufacturers, including Concurrent Computer Corporation, nCube and SeaChange. The network also will be looking at MPEG encoders, which are needed to distribute the programming, via satellite or fiber, to the head-end for distribution to the consumer.