During his 22-year tenure at HBO, Robert Zitter has been at the forefront of some of the most sweeping technological changes the television industry has seen.
He has worked on HBO's implementation of conditional access—essentially scrambling a cable signal—in the mid 1980s, the launch of HBO's compressed digital multiplex in 1992, the introduction of an HDTV feed in 1998, and the rollout of the premium channel's popular On Demand subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service in 2001.
As he prepares to accept the Vanguard Award for Science and Technology leadership, the 57-year-old Zitter, HBO executive vice president of technology operations and chief technology officer, considers himself lucky. "I think I've had one of the best jobs in the best era at one of the best companies to do it over the last 20 years.
"I never expected it," he adds. "But to go into work each day is a high for me. When I was hired at HBO, it was mainly a programming and marketing company, not a technology company, but HBO is supportive of finding technology innovation and using it to business advantage, and that's made it a lot of fun."
Zitter's love of technology has evolved along with HBO's technical achievement. In fact, he has no formal engineering training. Zitter was a pre-med student at Colgate University, where he worked at the campus radio station as a disc jockey; he also worked as a weekend DJ at WRUN in nearby Utica. While at Colgate, he received a Ford Foundation grant to produce a film, which got him interested in pursuing a television career.
After college, He began his career at network operations for ABC in New York—where his first duty was to prepare the network log. As a safety net, he also started taking night classes at New York Law School.
In February 1969, Zitter was drafted and served two years of military duty at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., working for Army Television as a producer and director. He also worked at WATU, the NBC affiliate in Augusta, as the director of the local news and the Bozo the Clown
show, and on weekends served as a night disc jockey at WBIA.
Zitter returned to ABC in 1971 and was soon promoted to supervisor of network operations, responsible for the prime time log. Zitter switched from law school to business school and started studying for an MBA at Pace University (he would later complete his MBA at Frostburg State College, Frostburg, Md.).
After marrying in May 1972, Zitter and his wife decided their future was in radio station ownership, but
another career got in the way. To gain experience managing a small business, Zitter took a job as general manager of Antietam Cable, a 7,000-subscriber system in Hagerstown, Md., owned by Schurz Communications.
In 1981, he returned to New York to work for HBO, which he had first come to know at Antietam when the pay-service was just starting up.
As HBO's director of network operations, Zitter was responsible for managing business relationships with the channel's transmission suppliers, including RCA, its satellite vendor at the time. As HBO was preparing to scramble its signals, Zitter had to negotiate scrambling deals with selected suppliers and coordinate the rollout of scrambling devices with cable operators.
Zitter's technical expertise would grow significantly in the early 1990s, when HBO began testing digital compression equipment from General Instrument for use in its satellite delivery system. While the initial equipment was expensive, it would allow the network to offer new HBO and Cinemax feeds.
HBO launched its first four-channel digital multiplex in 1992, a milestone that Zitter considers his important career accomplishment. "I think of all the things I've been involved with, being one of the early pioneers in digital television on the network side had more impact than anything I could imagine," he says. "On-demand is nice and HDTV is nice, but they all came from digital [distribution]. That's the thing I look back on with the greatest amount of pride."
The success of the HBO multiplex today, of course, is legendary, as the subsequent deployment of digital set-top boxes has allowed millions of cable and satellite customers to enjoy a diverse suite of HBO programming. HBO's standard-definition offerings were joined by the launch of prime time HDTV fare in 1998—very early in the game.
Today HBO transmits 26 SD channels and four high-definition feeds, and almost 80% of its program day is offered in HDTV. He expects high-definition television to be ubiquitous in ten years.
Zitter also expects most consumers will watch television on-demand in ten years, whether it is through a digital video recorder or headend server. Certainly, the early success of HBO's SVOD service would support his argument. HBO On Demand's biggest technical challenge after its 2001 launch was transaction demand, as subscribers loved the pause and rewind features of the service.
Zitter admits to "chomping at the bit" as he looks ahead at the television technology future.
Zitter predicts that the next step beyond HDTV and on-demand is portability. He expects HBO content, which has already found success in the DVD format, will make its way to new portable devices such as dockable recording units.
"People will be able to use, capture and store content and move from wherever they get the content, so they can use bits of time that they have when they are not sitting at home for entertainment and information," he says. "It will be a big opportunity for those of us that create and offer content."
Zitter is elated to receive the Vanguard Award. It's the "nicest recognition that I've ever received," he says. "It makes it more special than anything else that it comes from my peers. It's really a compliment that it comes from people that I know and I respect because I know everything they've accomplished."
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