Hallmark Channel launches new multiplex, reconfigures transponder use for HD channels

The Hallmark Channel today took the final step in its technical preparations for the Feb. 1 launch of its family-friendly entertainment channel in HD when it reconfigured the way it uses Transponder 5 onboard the AMC 11 satellite.

The reconfiguration involves reducing the bandwidth devoted to its existing carrier, moving it off-center and putting up a second off-center carrier using DVB-S2 8PSK modulation for delivery of MPEG-4 AVC-compressed HD to cable headends around the country, said Jim Bennett, VP of technical operations for the Hallmark Channel.

“The biggest challenge for us in rolling out the HD channels is in shifting from one to two carriers on the same transponder,” Bennett said. “But changing the way we use our transponder is the only way to get this many channels on the satellite.”

The change accomplishes several goals. First, it makes room for an HD multiplex to deliver east and west feeds of the new Hallmark Channel HD as well as east and west feeds of the Hallmark Movie Channel HD. Second, it requires Hallmark’s existing 3200 cable headends to only make software updates to continue receiving the existing QPSK multiplex of the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel in SD, Bennett said. Third, it allows channel owner Crown Media Holdings to avoid leasing another transponder.

While reconfiguring for dual multiplexes has been the biggest challenge, it hasn’t been the only one, Bennett said. Questions about formatting the appearance of the new HD channel also required planning and compromise. For instance, while from an aesthetic point of view it may have been desirable to create and playback separate SD and HD channels to avoid having to center cut HD lower-thirds, bugs and other graphics, the operational expense and hassle of managing two automation systems and reconciling two playback schedules with two as-run lists didn’t make sense, Bennett said.

Another challenge is what to do about commercials. Currently, the Hallmark Movie Channel HD receives few HD commercials, and Bennett said he doesn’t expect that to change — at least initially — when the new Hallmark Channel HD launches next month. The plan is to upconvert SD commercials to HD 4:3 until advertisers begin supplying HD commercials. “We are hoping the agencies begin saying ‘We need HD,’” Bennett said.

Despite the challenges, the launch of the Hallmark Channel HD has not been as difficult as it might otherwise have been thanks to the experience Bennett and the channel gained with the rollout of its HD movie channel in spring 2008. “We’ve patterned this launch after the Hallmark Movie Channel HD rollout,” he said.

Preparations for the Hallmark Channel HD launch began in July 2009. On Jan. 4, the new HD channel began a shadow playout from Broadcast Facilities’ (BFI’s) Andrita Media Center in Los Angeles. The launch of the reconfigured multiplex gives Bennett about two weeks to identify and correct any problems that might surface before the Hallmark Channel HD becomes commercially available Feb. 1, he said.

Bennett has set up a special Web site for cable operators requiring more technical details on the Hallmark Channel HD launch.

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.