HBO legend sees a long road to 4K television


Zitter didn’t just look into the future, he made it.

Bob Zitter, HBO’s revered chief technology officer, retires this month, ending more than thirty years at the cutting edge of television technology. In a valedictory keynote at the TV Connect conference in London, Zitter expressed near-term skepticism about the future of 3D and 4K television technology, but held out long term hope.

HBO tried offering 3D content, but Zitter said they never believed in it. The stumbling block is the need to wear special glasses, something consumers don’t want to do at home. “3D with glasses is dead“, he said, according to reporting by Television Business International and others at the event.

Screen size will limit any future market for 4K technology, an ultra-high definition format that doubles both the horizontal and vertical pixel count, he thinks. In order for resolution that fine to make a difference, the screen needs to be in the 60 to 70-inch range. Some consumers have enough room in their homes, but most don’t. Given current technology.

And that’s the key. Thin screen technology – think wallpaper or paneling – would change the equation if it’s ever developed. So would using 4K technology to eliminate the need for 3D glasses, according to Zitter. It’s not happening anytime soon. Despite showcasing demo units, glass-less 3D is ten years out on Samsung’s road map.

It’ll take ten to fifteen years to fully bake ultra-HD technology and move it into the market. That was the HDTV experience. Along with HBO and others, the company I was with in the 1990s – U.S. Satellite Broadcasting – tested and promoted HDTV for years before equipment prices dropped and consumers started buying it in volume.

Netflix’s public embrace of 4K notwithstanding, HBO is better positioned to capitalize on it when the time comes. As a satellite-based distributor, HBO can plausibly deliver the necessary 100 Mbps-minimum real time streams to a national audience, albeit on a broadcast basis.

Now, who was the guy who put HBO into the direct-to-home business? And pioneered the technology? Yeah. Bob Zitter.

About Steve Blum

Steve Blum is president of Tellus Venture Associates, a management, planning and business development consultancy for municipal and community broadband initiatives. He is a 30-year industry veteran and an expert in developing new broadband infrastructure and services, including wireless, fiber optic and satellite systems.

His career includes playing key roles in the launch and growth of DirecTv in the U.S., as well as other satellite broadcasting platforms around the world. For the past ten years, he has helped build municipal wireless and fiber optic broadband systems. His client list includes many California cities, such as San Leandro, Palo Alto, Oakland, Los Angeles, Lompoc and Folsom. He’s a member of the executive team for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and has worked with other regional consortia in California.

Steve is the author of seven books on the Internet and satellite broadcasting and is a frequent contributor to professional journals and industry events. He holds an A.B. in History from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.A. in East Asia Studies from the University of Washington, and an M.B.A. from the University of St. Thomas. He is a triathlete and multiple Ironman finisher, and is currently ranked in the top 100 of the Challenge Triathlon world rankings, out of more than 30,000 athletes.

  • There is a big difference between broadcast and on demand. Broadcast needs to work over a large area and generate unknown demand fairly quickly. On-demand can be highly selective and targeted. The business models from an upfront cost, acquisition cost, fulfillment, pricing, penetration and value generation are fundamentally different. There will also be several externalities at work. 4K will be driven by entertainment, productivity and other apps. And the marketplace is fundamentally different from the transition from cathode ray to flat-panel/HDTV, which took almost 15 years. 4K will happen in 5-10.

    Comcast’s fight against Netflix is very similar to a fight that happened in a slightly different way back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    Back then we had the analog Baby Bells trying to preserve monopoly revenue streams from Class 5 switching and intrastate tolls. In the mid-to-late 1980s they expanded calling areas (virtualizing the local nxx exchange) and went to flat rate pricing to withstand the threat of the digital, intelligent and highly commoditized WAN. They could do this because there was almost zero marginal cost or value lost from this move and a great deal of legacy high-cost infrastructure and operations and covering revenue to preserve.

    In the process they inadvertently opened the door to commercial ISPs co-locating channel banks and routers in those expanded LATAs. This is how they built nationwide layer 1-2 data networks that allowed users to “freely” dial-up and stay connected as long as they wanted for almost nothing (remember LD rates were still on the order of 15-20 cents PER MINUTE minute best rate). Thus was born the “free” internet and why the US scaled the WWW, http, html and mosaic in the early 1990s long before the rest of the world went to flat-rate or cheap access.

    The same “pricing” and “average vs marginal costing” issues and switch vs transport tradeoff’s are happening today with 4K.

    If Netflix can implement 4K viewing not with the cost and scale of broadcast, but rather the low and linear marginal cost of on-demand then they really can break the cable programming hegemony, because broadcast can’t easily respond. The marginal cost in those layers and across those boundary points are very low, given those are still “competitive” areas.

    That’s why Comcast doesn’t want layer 2-3 Netflix transport and router/storage components close to the customer in the MAN. Instead they want to hide behind the argument and supposed cost of layer 3 WAN peering to prevent a disruptive trojan horse from entering their city.

    • Good points, Michael. I disagree, however, about the economics of broadcast versus on demand distribution, and the time frame for 4K. But that’s for tomorrow’s blog post – thanks for getting it out on the table. Good luck!