Video software

Comcast Media Center Making MPEG-4 Play

The Comcast Media Center (CMC) is on the cusp of entering the MPEG-4 era and adopting a video compression scheme that's roughly twice as efficient as MPEG-2.

Rather than kicking things off with linear/broadcast programming, the Colorado-based entity will begin its MPEG-4 foray with video-on-demand (VOD). (See CMC Adding MPEG-4.)

Today, the CMC delivers more than 8,000 VOD "programming assets" (i.e., movies, television shows, and video shorts) in MPEG-2 format each month to more than 20 of the "top" cable MSOs, including Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK).

The CMC said it expects to begin transporting VOD titles in MPEG-4 once it seals a new "definitive agreement" with SES Americom , which operates IP-Prime, a "turnkey" IPTV platform that distributes 45 high-definition television channels and another 260 channels in standard-definition. SES Americom expects to add the VOD option in the fourth quarter of 2008.

"This collaboration with CMC extends our relationship, which, until now, has primarily focused on SES Americom's satellite distribution of their services," says IP-Prime president Bill Squadron, in a statement.

Once the deal with SES Americom is consummated, programmers will be able to tap the CMC's content management platform to deliver content in MPEG-2 and/or MPEG-4 format to cable systems. However, the CMC has yet to sign up any programmers for the new MPEG-4-based VOD service.

But programmers are starting to give MPEG-4 a go as they seek out ways to distribute their fare more efficiently to cable operators and other video service affiliates. Two premium programmers -- HBO and Starz Entertainment LLC -- have already made significant plans to distribute linear programming (i.e., regular broadcast programming) in the MPEG-4 format but have not announced any definitive plans to distribute VOD titles using the advanced compression scheme. (See HBO Bets Big on MPEG-4 and Starz Aligns on MPEG-4 .)

The CMC, meanwhile, has not yet announced any support for linear MPEG-4, but it's "monitoring the MPEG-4 situation," says a spokesman.

Comcast, of course, is an operator that stands to benefit the most from the CMC's coming MPEG-4 VOD platform. In January, the MSO introduced "Project Infinity," an initiative that aims to offer more than 1,000 HD-VOD choices by year's end. Comcast expects to offer more than 6,000 on-demand movies per month, with more than half in high-def, sometime next year. (See Comcast Launches 'Project Infinity'.)

The big challenge with MPEG-4 adoption is the fact that most deployed digital cable boxes can only decode MPEG-2 signals. However, several new models from primary suppliers such as Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and Pace Micro Technology will support both codecs.

Comcast was not immediately available to detail its MPEG-4 programming plans, but industry observers have suggested that operators could spur demand for the new boxes by marketing MPEG-4-heavy programming tiers. Motorola, meanwhile, has put forth the notion that switched digital video (SDV) technology could play an important role in cable's introduction of MPEG-4.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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