He makes sure that HBO technical decisions keep viewers happy
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/9/2002 8:00:00 PM
Technology leadership can be defined many ways. In some instances, it's about being ahead of the curve. In others, it's often about taking a curve and using it a different way. That doesn't mean zigging instead of zagging but rather using the zag to get somewhere else.
For Bob Zitter, HBO senior vice president, technology operations, it's the latter approach that helped him earn a BROADCASTING & CABLE Technology Leadership Award.
HBO began testing high-definition in the mid '80s, when all that was available was Japan's Muse HD system. But, a couple of years later, digital compression began to surface as a topic of discussion, and HBO asked General Instruments a question that changed the entire industry: Is it possible to use the same technology for squeezing a high-definition signal into 6 MHz to squeeze down a standard-definition signal, too? If so, that would allow for more SD signals to be added to the 6 MHz of bandwidth.
The answer, of course, was yes. And the result was HBO's first multiplex feed to cable operators, launched in January 1992.
That development also goes to the core of how Zitter views his job. "I think I've had the best job in the world because HBO has been a force of change in the television industry," he says. "And what I've liked is that the impact of technology on consumers and our business was always something that I've been encouraged to not be shy about."
Zitter has been involved in numerous wings of the broadcast industry at a professional level. In 1969, he worked for Army Television in Augusta, Ga., as a producer and director while serving at Fort Gordon. At the same time, he worked at WATU-TV Augusta as the director of the local news and the Bozo the Clown show. He also was a weekend DJ at WBIA(AM) Augusta.
"If there is one thing that characterizes my drive, it's that I didn't want to get pigeonholed in one area of media over another," he says. "I didn't want to be in the radio business at the exclusion of television, or broadcast at the exclusion of cable. And I think that's one thing that has kept my career enjoyable for me."
In 1981, he went to New York and became HBO's director of network operations. He soon faced his first major technical challenge: negotiating deals with suppliers and coordinating the rollout of satellite scrambling technology with the cable industry. Like the technical developments that followed, which include multiplexing, HDTV and on-demand, scrambling required not only knowing the technology for his own staff but helping the nation's cable operators understand the implications as well.
"Any new technology is mostly working out bugs and logistics," he says, "and being able to take something from the prototypes up to a large-scale deployment."
But Zitter's job isn't pure technology: "It's to see how things like DTV, personal video recorders [PVRs] or HDTV impact our business—and then which ones we should take an early position on or which ones to fight."
An example of a technology development that HBO did not lead on was surround sound. "We've always believed that people are paying a premium for HBO and that we're going to do things when we can do them well," says Zitter. "We weren't the first in 5.1 audio because we had concerns about some of the quality issues we had to work through to do it right."
The flip side of that is HBO's foray into HDTV, which reached subscribers in the summer of 1998, putting the cable net far ahead of the pack. Today, HBO's HDTV signal is carried on more than 61 systems across the country, a far cry from the launch nearly four years ago.
The move to HDTV shows how HBO understands its viewers: Most large-screen owners get HBO, and the network was quick to realize that those consumers would likely be the ones most interested in HDTV, too.
"They were also early adapters and likely to be our best subscribers," adds Zitter. "So we said that, if we didn't do HDTV, it could be harmful. We had to be there at the beginning."
It was not an easy task. Movie studios at that time, with the exception of HBO parent Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures, were not making HD masters.
"We had to build our own HD film-to-tape transfer operation," Zitter explains. "We told the studio we'd prefer them to make the copy for us but that, if they won't, then send us the film and we'll make it. Today, it's improved, so that many studios are making HD masters of their films and sending us a dub."
The HDTV challenge was similar to that experienced in '92 when HBO offered its four digital networks using pre-MPEG-2 technology.
"There were very few engineers who had experience in digital technology, and, when the equipment failed, it failed differently than analog equipment and needed to be handled differently," he explains. "So, in 1991, we beta-tested it for six months with 30 cable systems before we rolled it out, so we could learn how to train everyone else. That's the same thing we did with scrambling and on-demand technology."
The move to on-demand technology is Zitter's latest endeavor. And it's one he believes is very important to the future of the industry.
"I think that on-demand television is going to be a seminal change in how consumers interact with TV, whether it's through on-demand or PVRs. It's going to give the consumer more control of what they want to watch and when they want to watch it. And what that means for each network in the industry has various business ramifications, and that's why we're trying to get out there early."
Zitter says the on-demand technology (servers, etc.) is ready for prime time but is still the most challenging video technology that cable operators and networks have implemented since the days of satellite delivery when no one knew how to install a satellite dish.
"Integrating and automating it so that it isn't so hands-on is very important," he explains. "So is making sure that the technologies that are installed at the cable-system level can handle the technical model."
HBO's early trials of subscription VOD, for example, ran into a problem, although Zitter says it's the best problem to have: overwhelming demand. The model for the number of streams demanded was correct (typically supplying enough streams to reach 10% of the homes); the model for transaction demand on the front end was not.
"What's important," he says, "is to focus on the things that we can do different in the future. If we can sort them out and identify the good ones before others do that, we're at an advantage."
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