Dave Alpert VP of Operations & CTO, HBO Europe
HBO is one of the world’s major broadcasting brands, and an innovator in bringing content to audiences worldwide. The company, which has a very strong presence in North America, is also looking at ways in which it can boost revenues in Europe. Dave Alpert, vice president of operations & CTO of HBO Europe talks about the broadcaster’s strategy and key technology issues it faces in the region.
VIA SATELLITE: What major infrastructure projects is HBO Europe working on? What technologies are you looking to implement in your broadcast systems over the next 12 months?
Alpert: We have built quite an extensive contribution network across the region. Because of the economic considerations that we have in a number of small markets, and the need to provide the affiliate with a full plethora of possibilities across SD and HD programming, we are in the process of putting all of our HD programs through an IP encrypted contribution network. So, we are actually able to target each country, even down to operator level broadcast programming and live streams. This gives us a high degree of flexibility and because the fiber distance and network distances are fairly short, and we are fiber rich now in this part of the world, it is economically advantageous to not do this via satellite. We have also had a big push from DTH platforms which have wanted us to provide them with programming of a higher bit rate so they can then put the program streams through their own compression system.
VIA SATELLITE: So, less satellite than before?
Alpert: Yes, definitely. Satellite is economical when you have a large number of distribution points but, as our markets are seeing a lot of network consolidation, with investors buying networks, and networks increasingly being aggregated, there is a significant decrease in the number of cable headends we have to deliver. As most of the operators provide Internet services to their customers, we found very convenient signal delivery points, so they can pick-up the signal. I am sure over time other broadcasters will see that advantage as well but it is all down to the economics, and how much the international circuits actually cost.
VIA SATELLITE: Do you see IP as a competitive threat to satellite in Europe, or is it an opportunity?
Alpert: Everybody wants to differentiate themselves by getting their product out there to the consumer; now some DTH operators are providing boxes with IP.
This allows on-demand and other types of content that would not be economical to deliver over satellite. However, there are also hybrid approaches from cable operators as well happening across Europe. Holland is our most advanced market, they went digital before any other territory in central Europe.
A relatively recent development is the introduction of the IP gateway, a quite radical shift in the mindset of the operators, who are starting to keep people within their “walled garden” and offer households more products from the same big store. They want to be able to apply different business models with transactional products, in addition to subscription products, which is where our strength is. It means the set-top box is becoming a more sophisticated device, and it is almost as if the traditional mindset is being applied, where, as there is a technological contradiction, a lot of the technology could be server based, and the set-top box could be looked at as a transparent device.
VIA SATELLITE: Where are you in terms of your HD strategy? How did you handled the transition from SD to HD?
Alpert: When digital launched in the United Kingdom and the United States in the late 1990s, I was involved in the NTL rollout of digital in the United Kingdom. Generally, there are still a lot of legacy set-top boxes out there, evidence of a previous investment that still has a lifespan. In some of our markets in central Europe, where the economics are different, the cost of an HD box is still a significant decision-making investment factor for some of the smaller operators. .
As most of the operators provide Internet services to their customers, we found very convenient signal delivery points, so they can pick-up the signal.
As set-top boxes come down in price due to mass-production, then the remaining operators who are still in SD will eventually have to embrace HD. There is a crossover point for the industry; some operators may just decide to launch IP over their networks and use the DOCSIS route to provide a stream to the home.
VIA SATELLITE: What percentage of the content is HD compared to SD in Europe now?
Alpert: In terms of playout, HD is above 80 percent native HD programming. When we launched HD channels back in 2008 in Europe, it was a 50/50 split, but we have increasingly moved to HD. In the beginning there was massive concern on the part of operators who wanted to provide HD content in HD native formats. We have been in a very strong position to provide that, a lot of HBO programming has been in HD. For example, we launched “Band of Brothers” back in 2003 and were one of the first broadcasters to produce premium content in HD.
VIA SATELLITE: What is your take on 4K TV?
Alpert: We have to apply some common sense to it in market terms, and the advances that the technology has taken, as well as the flat panel manufacturers’ strategies. There is a whole kind of complexity around that.
HD TV sets started appearing in our markets once we had launched HD; HBO was one of the first broadcasters in the region to launch the service. We then relied on the operators to provide the HD set-top boxes, so we have been a factor in driving up the take-up of HD. Going to 4K and Ultra-HD, I think this is going to be a very niche step. I sense it is more suited to the cinema market as this will enable them to provide a much sharper picture. Frankly, I have the feeling it will take a number of years to reach the domestic market, and there are a number of bandwidth issues. I would imagine operators on DTH platforms would be quite bandwidth-constrained to provide a picture of four times the resolution of native HD.
VIA SATELLITE: What impact is Over The Top (OTT) broadcasting and streaming technologies having for traditional broadcasting and companies like HBO?
Alpert: Many affiliates want to provide their subscribers with IP-based set-top boxes. This allows the operator to reach the consumer in places where they don’t have an existing core IP network, allowing them to go into other networks and offer TV-related premium services. This is happening in Poland and the Balkans. It does not seem to matter how big or how small the market is, the technology proposition is now much more affordable to the operator; IP boxes are becoming more of a mature technology.
VIA SATELLITE: What trends do you see emerging in broadcasting over the next 12 months?
Alpert: Back in the old days, we used to digitize, schedule and playout. Now, it is all about receiving files, and not tapes. It is about being able to re-purpose the content, provide content in multiple formats, and creating the metadata for different formats, portals and services. We need to provide all of that product in different formats in a localized form, and for this you need a highly efficient system to localize content and programming to suit our markets. We have quite a sophisticated automated workflow, which enables us to do that with a fairly low number of staff. We started re-purposing content workflow back in 2008, and we have been getting better and better at it each year. We have also had some challenges in terms of “day and date” so, in order to combat piracy, we process localized content in a much quicker way, so that programming could go on air in HBO in the United States at 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday evening, and have the same program on air in Europe within a 24 hour timeframe. That not only includes the playout of the linear program itself, we have the transcoding in the actual file delivery and to the operators so they can then post the service. We have to apply principles like Toyota does in car manufacturing, where you need to let the content flow through; you need to manage it more and more in an automated way. You need to have your workforce doing the things that humans can do and that machines can’t do, so there is a lot of IT and broadcasting convergence taking place. The processes between the two are becoming increasingly integrated.