Starz: HDR likely will launch on OTT service first

BOSTON -- Premium cable provider Starz is keen to offer HDR content to its viewers, said Ray Milius, the company's EVP of programming and operations, here on the sidelines of the INTX show. However, he declined to provide any kind of a timeframe for that launch because of the many issues he said continue to hinder HDR technology.

But Milius added that Starz will likely launch HDR content on its OTT platform first, simply because the company has more direct control over that distribution channel than it does the pay-TV providers that carry its offerings.

The new Starz app is "more than likely the first place you'll see it," Milius said of HDR. The company recently updated its TV Everywhere app, and also launched its direct-to-consumer Starz service for $8.99 per month.

HDR technology likely will create a significantly improved viewing experience for the channel's viewers. High Dynamic Range content displays noticeably crisper colors, making blacks blacker and whites whiter. Already companies like Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) are hinting at efforts to provide HDR content to viewers as early as this year, and the latest 4K TVs from most manufacturers sport HDR content.

Indeed, Milius said that Starz is already filming its original content in 4K, and will be able to upgrade that content to HDR in the future.

And he said Starz is already supplying some 4K content to a small subset of its viewers: those who subscribe to Comcast, who also have the operator's X1 box, who also have a newer Samsung TV, and who have also downloaded Comcast's Xfinity 4K app for those Samsung TVs. 4K content distribution "is extremely limited at this time," Milius said.

But Milius said HDR "is still a ways away."

First, Milius explained, deploying HDR content alongside 4K technology would require dramatically more bandwidth than HD content. He said currently 4K files are roughly four times bigger than HD files -- which means cable operators and other pay-TV distributors would have to significantly increase their network capacity in order to deliver multiple channels of 4K content. Most in the industry expect HDR to be deployed alongside 4K.

To partially counter that problem, Milius explained that the industry is currently working on a new codec to compress 4K and HDR content, one that would replace the current MPEG4 codec that Starz and others use to compress HD content. However, there is no clear standard yet for a codec that will be able to handle HDR. Milius explained that HEVC and HEVC Advanced are options, but he said both suffer from onerous patent licensing issues that need to be ironed out before a programmer like Starz would be able to deploy the technology.

Further, Milius explained, only the most recent 4K TVs are able to properly display HDR content, and it's unclear how fast HDR-capable TVs will make their way into enough homes to make a move to HDR worthwhile financially.

"We don't have a firm timeline [for an HDR launch] at this point," Milius said.

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Article updated May 18 to correct information on HDR.