Friday, March 31, 2006

The Players #4: HD Networks

Unless you're a simulcast of a popular non-HD channel, it is a proud and lonely thing to be an HD network in these early days. The general public doesn't know that much about you, even if you're affiliated with something they do know (e.g. PBS HD). You're lucky if you can get distribution, especially from cable.

Even lonelier must be those forward-looking TV programmer types working away at dozens and dozens of cable networks, dreaming of the day when they can go HD, and wondering just how long they'll have to wait. While satellites are ramping up new birds and new choices like FIOS (and eventually IPTV) promise bandwidth relief, most of us are cable watchers, and things are pretty dire in that sector. Systems everywhere seem stretched to the limit, and new channel rollouts are painfully slow (older Comcast systems still don't have TNT-HD, which Comcast rolled out in May '05). If you're a would-be HD programmer and you know Comcast may not be able to carry your channel for years, that's gotta effect your go/nogo calculations. No one wants to be the next Encore HD.

So the question facing the few brave souls willing to launch in these times is this; can they hang on long enough for cable to solve its bandwidth problems (especially if that doesn't happen until the end of analog)? Or can satellite/FIOS/IPTV carriage be enough?

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Players #3: Program Providers (Cable, Satellite, Telcos)

What does every HD fan want most? More channels, obviously. And every HD fans' biggest frustration is the slow speed at which these are being added and launched (see next post for more on the latter).

At the moment, satellite seems furthest along the way to being able to add a large number of channels, unencumbered by the legacy of analog and needing only to send up new birds. Hopefully when there is enough capacity we'll see more of those channels presented at full resolution!

Cable is where there will be a real bandwidth struggle (at least until analog is gone). Any real progress in the next few years will be conditioned by how quickly services like Extended Basic can follow the example of pay channels by migrating to digital-only. What percent of the customer base will have to have digital cable to make this feasible (i.e. to stave off a revolt)?

And how will the rise of services like Verizon's FIOS affect all this?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Players #2: Broadcast

Since it is is digital broadcasting, not HD, that falls under federal mandates, the transition to HD programming really is a separate matter from the "DTV transition", but it's obviously a big part of this story, a part whose telling will go on well past 2/17/09. As it stands now, the larger broadcast networks are fairly far along with the transition to HD programming, but there's certainly a few to-dos left to be done, among them:

* National News - One network (ABC) has started this by getting Good Morning America up in HD, and there are reports that Today will follow later this year. So how long will it be until some nightly news shows follow, and how much time after that will be required until remote (i.e. non-studio) HD footage becomes common?

* Non-primetime - Not my area of greatest interest, but it's worth noting that CBS is still alone (after several years) in having an HD soap. And how long before all of late-night falls in line?

* Local News - Back in January, I read this Broadcasting and Cable article on CBS's plans to convert its O&O stations' local news operations to HD, starting with Boston and Chicago stations in March. I'm in the Boston area, and am anxiously awaiting developments here (the article says they need Nextel to deploy some new microwave gear before beginning HD newscasts). I've read some scattered reports of HD local news already. How long before it becomes commonplace?

* Publicity - This is a network-specific observation (PBS is the network). PBS HD has existed as a seperate channel for some time now, and yet the only mention of it on their website lies in some well-hidden pages containing some very old info, and some Red Book production requirements. Is this channel still considered a demo? My local station (WGBH, one of the most prominent in the country) never mentions it in their "@GBH" promotional emails.

* Other Local Programming - We're lucky here in the Boston area that our ABC affiliate WCVB does the occasional episode of their magazine show Chronicle in HD. These include some of the best HD footage I've ever seen, and I really hope they start doing this more often than once every few weeks! I'd love to hear about locally-originated HD in other areas. When will HD start popping up on local digitals not associated with the "Big 5" (such as Telemundo stations and indies)?

UPDATE (03/27/06): Re-worked the first paragraph, and added a final sentence to the last paragraph.

The Players #1: The Public

From everything I read, the lack of public awareness of what is scheduled to happen a bit less than 35 months from now is really stunning, although I really shouldn't be too surprised, given that the story has been buried in the Business/Tech sections of most newspapers. Given the place that TV has in most households, this should be page 1, above-the-fold news, and regulary featured in the network nightly newscasts.

The biggest question in this transition is this; what will the public do when they find out? I know everybody is now referring to 2/17/09 as the "hard" date, but we should keep in mind that most members of Congress would like to be re-elected, so it will be interesting to see how much public outrage would be required to get them to change their minds.

Of course, it very well could come too late. The spectrum auction is scheduled for 2008, and there could still be a lot of clueless people out there at that time, to judge from how things are going now.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Subject Matter

In the basic blog description, I talked about how I wanted this blog to focus on "big picture" aspects of the transition, but there wasn't enough room in 500 characters to get into just what those are.

As I envision it, here are our big topics:

* Public Awareness and Reaction - When will more of the public wake up to what is scheduled to happen in less than three years, and what will happen when they do? Could public outrage undo the "hard" date?

* Programming - How quickly will broadcast HD programming extend beyond prime time? To what extent will developments in bandwidth affect the willingness of cable and satellite companies to carry additional HD channels, and network owners to launch those new channels in the first place? When will networks like PBS do more to publicize their digital offerings? (Since the existing mandates only cover broadcast digital, this topic could have a life well beyond the analog shutoff date.)

* Hardware - How will hardware manufacturers respond to the transition? Will "digital SDTVs" undercut the forward progress of HD? What is the public buying?

At least, that's what I've come up with so far.