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Season's over, so Cuban cheers for HD

Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban high-fives high-definition sports viewing and boos slow movie downloads.

He's a billionaire business tycoon, a Hollywood producer and the maverick owner of the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks.

Most people know Mark Cuban as the guy the cameras always catch chewing out referees at basketball games. Of course, many can also identify him as the founder of Internet radio site, which he sold to Yahoo for $5.7 billion in 1999, and co-owner of HDNet.

By promoting HDNet, which bills itself as the nation's first television network to broadcast exclusively in high definition, for the HD format.

The game is over. HDTV is on its way to becoming ubiquitous.

It's fitting that he should be the front man. Besides having a foot in the entertainment business (Cuban bankrolled the George Clooney film "Good Night, and Good Luck"), he also has insight into sports marketing as an NBA owner. Sports are supposed to be a key selling point for HD. Richer details, on the playing field, are supposed to appeal to armchair quarterbacks, proponents say.

The National Football League season is set to start next month, and many HD backers are hoping that it will mark a watershed year in HD adoption.

In a recent e-mail interview with CNET, the sometimes volatile and always outspoken Cuban takes a verbal swipe or two at CBS, Hollywood and anyone who wants to watch analog television.

Q: Pundits have said sports are a natural for high-definition broadcasts. What is the future of sports broadcast in high definition?
Cuban: The more relevant question is: What is the future for sports that are not in high definition? The answer is that once a sports fan sees a game in HD, he or she can't go back to standard definition. It looks blurry and unwatchable.

So games in any sport--whether it's hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball, football, rugby or equestrian--look much better in HD. If they aren't broadcast that way, they will have the same impact as being shown in black and white. Viewers will think that there is something wrong.

The sports that gain the most are hockey and soccer, which is why HDNet pursued these sports. HD enables fans of the National Hockey League to finally see the puck, and more importantly, the wide screen enables fans to follow movement across the length of the ice and see game strategy.

The same applies in soccer. These were things that weren't available to TV viewers before. Plus, 5.1 sound makes a huge difference. We do a thing called "Sites and Sounds" of the game. We turn off the announcers and immerse the viewer in the surround sound of what happens at the game. Hearing the crowd, hearing a check up against the boards or a shot hitting the pipe--it's really a different experience.

HDNet already broadcasts some sports, but could we see college football or more of the major sports on HDNet?
Cuban: We think the NHL and Major League Soccer are major sports because they gain the most from high def and are two of the best-attended sports in the country. The only reason they are questioned as major sports is because of TV ratings.

Well, their ratings suffered in the past because the sports aren't suited for 4-by-3 standard-definition coverage. That is a thing of the past, with HDNet coverage of each. Now watching the NHL or MLS is a great experience, and we have fanatical viewers of both, and the numbers are growing by the day.

What's your prediction for HD's evolution? Where should it be next year? In five years?
Cuban: HDTV home penetration will continue to accelerate, and sales of analog will go away, for the most part. There are no major hurdles to overcome. The game is over. HDTV is on its way to becoming ubiquitous.

Everyone thinks content delivery will come from the Internet. It won't. It's too expensive and far too slow to deliver HD content.

What convinced you that HD would be the wave of the future? Can you tell us a little about your entry into the market?
Cuban: I always look for conventional wisdom that is wrong--then (I find) opportunity. The conventional wisdom of the late 1990s and early 2000s was that HDTVs were too expensive and would always be that way.

I looked at HDTVs and saw not only a compelling TV experience but a digital product that would follow the same price performance curve as all other digital products. The features and performance would improve while the price came down quickly.

It was pretty obvious to me that analog TVs weren't going to get better, while digital would get better and cheaper to the point that analog would go away. Combine that with the coolness factor of being able to , and to me, it was a no-brainer.

With that in mind, Phil Garvin and I started HDNet. The process started in 2000, and we launched on Sept. 21, 2001. Our challenge in starting HDNet was in finding and creating content in HD, getting distribution and an audience, and establishing ourselves before the rest of the TV world realized the value of HD.

I think we are well on our way to establishing ourselves with great programming, from "Dan Rather Reports" to NHL hockey to Major League Soccer to "HDNet World Report," plus our day and date releases of original movies like Oscar-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," Steven Soderbergh's "Bubble" and many more. Of course, more information is available at the HDNet and HDNet Films Web sites.

In five years, how will consumers be entertaining themselves? Can you give us your take on what the connected living room looks like?
Cuban: There are three questions there. One is, what devices will be in the living room? The second question is, what programming sources will be used? And the third is, how will they be connected?

I don't think there is any question that the centerpiece of any entertainment in the home will be the high-def TV, most likely an LCD (liquid crystal display) TV hanging on the wall. The question on this device is, how will we connect to it?

If TV manufacturers are smart, they will be compatible with the OpenCable Application Platform (the cable industry's software standard for deploying interactive services) and offer USB X.X and FireWire connectivity so that people can connect whatever devices they want.

I personally think that the optimal connection will be personally managed hard drives. In five years, a terabyte or more of storage on a hard drive will be less than $100. We should be able to fill that up with music and whatever content we want in HD format, connect it to the TV and, using our remote, choose whichever movies we want.

Everyone thinks content delivery will come from the Internet. It won't. It's too expensive and far too slow to deliver HD content. You just bought your 50-plus-inch LCD that is hanging on the wall. Do you want standard definition over compressed HD or the best-possible picture quality from your content?

Blu-ray Disc- or HD DVD-quality content or better will be possible, but you won't get that quality from a download. The reality is that it's cheaper and faster to send (hard drives with terabytes of) content overnight via UPS than it is to download it over the Net. Brown is faster than the Net.

So the smart company will send you hard drives full of content that you will pick and choose from. If it were up to me, DirecTV and the Dish Network would merge. They would buy Netflix and Hollywood Video, and then offer us 10-teraybyte hard drives full of all the content we could dream of that we can get for free or buy at a premium.

If it were up to me, DirecTV and the Dish Network would merge. They would buy Netflix and Hollywood Video, and then offer us 10-teraybyte hard drives full of all the content we could dream of that we can get for free or buy at a premium.

The hard drives would either show up at our door ala Netflix, be picked up at the store, ala Hollywood Video, or be pumped to a hard drive connected to our satellite connection (or cable connection) continuously. We then take those drives, plug them into the LCD TV and go movie-crazy.

Then when we get cabin fever or bed sores, we get out of the house and go to a Landmark theater (Cuban's company recently acquired Landmark Theatres) to see it on a big digital screen with the latest sound and effects.

You've talked about the possibility of making HD-quality movies available via kiosks equipped with hard drives or shipping people hard drives filled with movies. What option is best right now, and why do you hate DVDs so much?
Cuban: See above. I don't hate DVDs. I just like the flexibility, portability and choice of hard drives. You tell me which is easier to take on a plane: a 4-gigabyte flash drive with four movies in DVD quality, or four DVDs in their cases?

Now extend that to 100 movies on a portable hard drive. Which is exactly how I carry and review early cuts of movies for HDNet Films and 2929 Entertainment (Cuban's entertainment company).

You don't believe video-on-demand is a feasible model, but my friends say they don't want to go to a Blockbuster or wait for Netflix to send them a DVD by mail. They want to download movies off the Web. How long before we see this?
Cuban: You won't--at least not in the "I ask, I get" model. You may be able to download for overnight delivery via the Net. You may be able to download for 60-minute delivery if you are willing to take lesser quality. But before we get to bandwidth, you have to deal with the pirate phobia issues of the movie and TV business.

They won't let you download without so many limitations, it will piss you off more than its worth. You won't know what you can or can't do with the content, whether you own or are borrowing it and for how long. And you won't know what devices you can or can't use it on. A perfect world, right?

That said, if you are OK with standard definition, you will be able to go online, find what you want and immediately stream it--which is the exact model that was "Want it now, watch it now" is fine. But it won't be in HD, and it won't be download.

To download or stream HD takes far too much bandwidth to do it for all content. If I thought 100MB switched, sustainable bandwidth to the home was a reality in my lifetime, I would be all for it. It's not with current or on-the-horizon technology and financial scenarios.

Bandwidth to and in the home are issues. How much WiMax, WiThis, UltraThat, XXMax bandwidth will be created in the home in the next five to 10 years? Will it be enough to supply four HDTVs in a home while recording favorite shows to four TiVos at the same time? All in streams of 8MB or more? Simultaneously? I don't think so.

How important has it been for HDNet to sign legendary newsman Dan Rather?
Cuban: Dan is amazing. This was a huge move for HDNet. It not only provides us branding and visibility, but it unleashes Dan to do the news reporting that he hasn't been able to do for years at CBS. I think people are going to be amazed at what he is able to accomplish, and that, in turn, will obviously help accelerate HDNet's growth even further.

It's been reported that you are in the market for a 103-inch HDTV. Have you gotten it? What do you think of the quality of HDTVs, and which kind of set will win: LCD or plasma?
Cuban: Leave it to the New York Post to exaggerate a situation. I saw at the Consumer Electronics Show. I asked if they could contact me when they were available so I could get one. They said "yes," and they did. So I have one on order and can't wait to get it.

I think LCD will end up winning, for sure. They are making the furthest strides per generation, and the capacity is growing so quickly, the prices will drop, and the sizes will grow more quickly than plasma.

Two consortiums are battling it out to replace the DVD format, and both are asking consumers to buy packaged discs. Where should Hollywood, consumer electronics manufacturers and software makers concentrate their efforts?
Cuban: I don't want them to change at all. They should make fewer movies--more opportunity for me.