Forging ahead in HD

Three years ago, DIRECTV began planning for its ambitious direct-to-home satellite delivery of HD television, says Derek Chang, the company's executive

Three years ago, DIRECTV began planning for its ambitious direct-to-home satellite delivery of HD television, says Derek Chang, the company's executive VP content development and strategy.

According to Chang, who is presenting a keynote speech during the Broadcast Engineering, Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News HD Technology Summit Dec. 4-5 in Universal City, CA, the lead time needed to build and launch a new satellite like DIRECTV-10, the Boeing 702 DBS HD satellite put into orbit July 7, gave DIRECTV valuable time to build support among networks and resolve how customers access HD.

“When we came out in January and said we are going to have 100 channels of HD by the end of the year, all of the cable guys and a lot of our competitors laughed at us and said there aren't a hundred channels to put on,” Chang says. “It's gone from there to the point where we are closing in on 100. There are programmers who still aren't on and are now coming to us saying, ‘I don't want to be left out.’”

Recalling initial talks with programmers that began in the summer of 2006, Chang says a mismatch of sorts existed between DIRECTV's sense of urgency to offer HD programming and some programmers' timetables to roll out HD.

“Some of the initial conversations were pretty difficult because a lot of these programmers knew HD was coming but didn't have a game plan for it,” he says. “Over a six- to nine-month period, we had gotten them to realize that if they didn't have a plan for HD and weren't reserving a space on our platform, they were actually going to miss out.”

What's resulted, in Chang's view, is an unequaled stable of HD sports, movies and entertainment that will establish DIRECTV as the top source for HD programs.

“We have multiple feeds from basically every programmer out there. No one else can say that right now,” he says. “Whether it's Disney, Turner, Viacom, NBC, FOX, Discovery, The Movie Channel, HBO, Showtime or Starz, we've got it all. We also have loaded up on our ability to get all of our sports products in HD, including all of the out-of-market games, which take up a lot of bandwidth. When you try to do 10 baseball games a night, not everyone can do that. But we are already carrying it because we are carrying the RSNs (regional sports networks). So that's where we believe we have certain advantages over some of our competitors.”

Adding 100 new HD channels without thoroughly thinking through how customers will find them could create a big problem, so DIRECTV was determined to make the experience simple.

“From a user standpoint, getting people up to speed on HD is a matter of education. What we came up with was the concept that channel line-ups and guides could be difficult,” Chang says. “Instead of having customers memorize new numbers for new channels, we actually created our technology so you tune to the same channel you've always tuned to, and if you have HD service, it just comes in as HD. For example, ESPN is on Channel 206. If you purchase an HD set and have an HD box, when you tune to 206, you will get ESPN in HD without having to memorize new channel numbers.”

That approach is consistent with how DIRECTV views HD in general, he says.

“The theory for us is HD is just an enhancement. It's a visible enhancement; it's just a much better quality picture,” Chang says. “At the end of the day, most people are going to want to watch what they traditionally watched. So, we took the route of really trying to urge and encourage programmers to start putting their existing services in HD. It's really the same service that they've invested a lot of money in. It's just you get to watch it on an enhanced basis. Our strategy is that HD fits with DIRECTV. DIRECTV has always been a premium brand, a premium experience, and HD really reflects that.”