Thursday, April 27, 2006

Martin Weighs In On Downconversion

Back on April 6th, I pointed out that the current inability of cable companies to downrez digital signals at the headend could make it difficult to put together a worthwhile analog cable package after broadcast analog goes away on 2/17/09. Now Multichannel News is reporting that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has similar concerns.

At least we agree on something. Time spent worrying about this will take time away from his other big project (sanitizing the airwaves), and that's definitely a good thing.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Digital Takes The Lead

According to the latest Schubin's Memo sales of digital TVs exceeded that of analog for the first time in the ninth week of this year (right about the time the digital-tuner mandate went in for sets of 25 or more inches), and by the 13th week had caught up in year-to-date sales as well.

A small milestone (especially since it seems to be driven more by the tuner mandate than by conscious consumer choice), but worth noting nonetheless.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ball of Confusion

If you were forced to find a way to make the public even more confused about HD they were before, what would you do? How about giving them a format war over two new high-priced DVD formats, then create a state of uncertainty over whether or not movies will employ an "image constraint token" to reduce resolution (to 960 x 540) for sets lacking an HDMI input?

One more thing; have stores demo players with regular DVDs (as HD Beat is reporting in regards to the launch of the HD-DVD format). (Although this may well be because there are only four movies available in this format now, which rises to a whopping seven on Tuesday, 4/25.)

Could you do better than that? I don't think I could, either.

Monday, April 17, 2006

34 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Hey, it's the 17th! It is now 34 months until the current "hard" date on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. I'm going to try something here and use the 17th (or soon thereafter) each month to recap developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story. It could be one post, or be broken up into parts over the course of a few days, depending on length and the amount of time I have. So here goes!

THE PUBLIC - I haven't seen any new surveys regarding public awareness and attitudes towards the transition, but I have been doing an informal survey of a few friends. Overall, there's more awareness than I expected; then again, these are fairly educated folks. Another thing I noticed is that most of them do not believe the current date will hold. I'm guessing that they're thinking about the kind of reaction displayed in a letter to the Boston Globe that got printed today, from a reader dismayed over the fact that there are no longer any Red Sox games on broadcast TV (they're all on NESN now). This reader represents the segment of the public that cannot afford any kind of cable subscription - what will they do when faced with the potential loss of all of their programming? Also, My April 15th post deals with some interesting statements made by two officials regarding public reaction.

BROADCASTING - Not a lot to report on the spread of HD programming. Supposedly the go date for Today is sometime this fall. One area has actually gone backwards - I've learned that plans to convert CBS owned-and-operated news operations to HD are now on hold indefinitely.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - Not much to report from cable, either - a quick check of the HD section of my local Comcast website shows that it hasn't been updated in more than two years (four channels have been added in that time), and that's in line with the priority the product seems to be getting (all the "buzz" is directed to VOD, DVR and HSI lately). I'd probably be with RCN if they could service my building - it's a better product (HD Net, full-time NESN), and they really should promote it more . Contrast with Dish, which just launched a major ad campaign promoting the superiority of their HD lineup.

HD NETWORKS - Scripps Networks released HGTV-HD into limited distribution a week ago, with Food Network slated to follow in June. I gave my opinion on A&E plans back on April 8th.

MANUFACTURERS - It's probably too early to say definitively, but the last couple of weeks of big-box circulars would seem to indicate that the new "digital SDTVs" may do very well in the 25-30" range against HD sets of similar size. I apologize for not talking yet about the looming format war between next-generation DVD formats. I'm still gathering my thoughts on that one.

GOVERNMENT - Don't look for too many developments here until there are signs that existing mandates aren't practical.

That's all for the moment!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Cautionary Notes

Well, at least a few people are thinking ahead. Broadcasting and Cable have recently (well, the first one's a month old) reported some cautionary comments by FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and John Knauer from the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regarding the possible effects of the transition on the analog-watching public.

From the Adelstein article:
Adelstein said it was vital for the industry to do a better job of letting consumers know that their analog TV's won't be working in three years--at least not without a converter box.... "If we don't get this right," he said, "we face a tsunami of public outrage."

From the Knauer article:
"We are at the beginning," Kneuer said, "and we're going to need lots and lots help to get that done."
Congress has given NTIA money to educate the public, but it's a miniscule amount: $5 million.

So, do you think these guys are pessimists, or realists?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Frequency and Purpose

What are we here for? What should you expect?

As I said back in my first post, I'm looking to produce a "big picture" view of the next few years of the transition to digital television (as well as the spread of HD programming within DTV outlets). Part of this means that I won't be deluging you with every fact or announcement relating to DTV or HD, just the ones that I feel have a particular relevance to where we're going. It would be nice if, when all of this has played out and all of this new technology feels normal and ordinary to the average person, someone could read this blog as a narrative of the transition, without having to devote a month or so of their free time to the task.

So expect a post or two every few days early on, but more often as things heat up closer to the shut-off.

In the meantime, check out my links for much, much more info.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Sunday Supplements (4/9/06)

One thing I noticed while perusing the big box ads that come with my Boston Sunday Globe today; the notices for "closeout" analog sets in the 25"-and-up range are gone. Well, that didn't take long. I assume that means that the existing inventory of analog sets in that size range really did sell out within a month, or that stocks are so low that they're not worth mentioning.

And the "digital SDTVs" are more prominent than ever. The cheapest HD set offered in that size range this week is $499.95 (and that's for a monitor at Micro Center), so these sets certainly will have a big appeal to the budget-conscious. I wonder how low manufacturers can push the prices of widescreen HD sets to compete?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A&E Takes A Page From the TNT Playbook

Multichannel News reports on the HD plans for A&E and History Channel. A&E is scheduled for later this year and History Channel sometime in 2007. This caught my attention:
Unlike many HD networks, he added, programming on the channel will either be true HD or offer a wide-screen format to eliminate the black bars that appear on the screen for shows that aren’t presented in the format.

In other words, stretch-o-vision for all non-HD programming (this is a simulcast). Another TNT-HD, if that's your thing.

Still, I'll probably check out the June preview, if Comcast actually shows it somewhere (another INHD pre-empt?).

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Players #6: Government

You can make a case for the notion that government's role in this process is just about done. After all, the "hard" date to end analog broadcasting is already set, as well the mandates for inclusion of digital tuners in all TVs (that have any tuner in the first place). So why have this item at all?

It's here mostly as a reminder that things could still change once the public becomes more aware of all this. And there's one more thing. Resistance by cable customers to the idea of switching to digital cable (and its accompanying STB) may cause cable companies to want to extend the life of analog cable well beyond the end of analog broadcasting. But you'd have to think that the core of any analog cable package would be the big broadcast networks, and as of now, there's a little problem with that. The final DTV legislation passed by Congress late last year stripped language from the House version that would have allowed cablecos to downrez digital broadcast signals into analog. The lack of broadcast channels in an analog cable package would seemingly make it a fairly dicey proposition after 2/17/09. So there may just be some legislating left to do, even if all the hard dates and mandates remain in place.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Players #5: Manufacturers

Let me say right up front that this will not be a hardware-centric blog. You can get tons of detailed tech specs, etc. from many other sources, such as HDTV Magazine (they publish an extremely extensive annual review by Rodolfo La Maestra). But the hardware that is made (and sold) will clearly affect the programming that is produced and distributed, and the channels that are launched and carried. That makes hardware developments that illustrate some aspect of the bigger picture fair game.

Here's an example. Recently a federal mandate went into affect that says that all TVs 25" and over must include a digital tuner, unless they're simply a monitor with no tuner at all. Note that this applies to manufacture, not sale, and does not cover existing stocks. However, it didn't take long for the "big box" ads to list every analog set (in that size range) in their circulars as a closeout. More importantly, we're starting to see ads for their replacements, the "digital SDTV".

And the digital SDTV worries me. I first heard about it last summer, and wasn't sure it had any future. But the more I think about it, the more I see the potential for it to become a big hit. The combination of a near-analog price and familar 4:3 aspect ratio could be just the thing for that segment of the public (which I'm guessing is pretty large) that would really rather have the TV experience they grew up with, or as close to that as can be had in the post-analog age. This effect will only increase next year when the mandate applies to even the smallest sets.

If these sets do become the replacement set of choice for all those analog sets out there, what does that do to plans for HD programming and new channels? How much of existing and planned investment was based on the idea that everyone would be watching HD in the not-too-distant future? Will those investments still be worth it if most people are watching a letterboxed (or cropped) image in 480i?