Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Even More About Downconversion

Well, I guess I was wrong last time. In my last post I expressed doubt that cable companies would (given the right to downconvert HD signals to regular digital cable) actually not carry an HD signal. but further posts in the AVS thread I referenced previously have convinced me that this might be the case in certain situations (mostly related to multiple streams in a "must-carry" environment). And so perhaps the "big 4" broadcasters aren't being paranoid after all, and neither is the NAB (who have now joined the fray, as reported in this HDBeat followup).

However, I'll still be surprised if this affects those HD channels that HD viewers actually want to see - but we'll see.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

More About Post-Transition Analog Cable (Among Other Things)

I've posted before (here and here) about the problems cablecos might have providing a viable analog cable package after 2/17/09, due to current regulations forbidding them from downconverting digital broadcast signals to analog.

But things are looking up on that score. Those regulations were a response to objections from broadcasters, who seem to rethinking said objections, according to this Broadcasting & Cable article.

But just because broadcasters are now OK with conversion with analog, that doesn't mean that they don't have serious issues with cable (as the article title points out). It's just that now they don't want cable to downconvert HD signals to ordinary SD digital cable. It seems they're afraid that they will use those signals instead of the full-strength HD signals. Myself, I can't imagine any cable system being dumb enough to do something so likely to terminally piss off a growing, demographically desirable audience. More likely (just guessing here) they want to give their non-HD "digital cable" audience an SD taste of the HD channels they're missing.

More info on this can be obtained from this HD Beat post (where I found out about it in the first place) and this AVS thread.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Five More Years (At Least) For Analog Cable?

It's been a slow news week for items meeting Switchover's criteria (highlighting major transition-related trends), but this one will make up for it.

One of the favorite things frustrated HD viewers like to speculate on is the timetable for cable's elimination of the analog tier (in order to free up bandwidth, natch). I've read numerous posts by people who would like to see that happen right now, regardless of the effects on the analog-viewing majority. Many more seem to assume that analog will die right around the time of the broadcast shutoff on 2/17/09. If you're one of those, get ready for some disappointment.

This Multichannel News article gives some insight into the thinking of the heads of both Comcast and Time Warner, and they are definitely not rushing this. Here's a telling quote from Comcast's Brian Roberts:
Asked if Comcast would ever get rid of the analog tier altogether or if in the future, the cable operator would always have some form of an analog tier, Roberts said that internally, company executives have debated that 20-40 analog channels would remain until at least 2011.

“It would be better if we don’t have to make the hard decisions like that,” Roberts said. “Let the consumer drive it. If we have to make a big bet and we get it wrong … ouch.”

While Roberts added that several technologies have great potential, for the meantime, the focus will be on rolling out Comcast’s digital-phone product.

Myself, I'm not too shocked by this. Any big business has to cater to the majority of their customers, and the enormous analog installed base requires a gentle hand with this. But 40 analog channels? That's a lot of HD channels we won't be seeing any time soon.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

33 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, it's the 17th, 33 months until the current "hard" date on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. As I did last month, I'm going to 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. Not a huge number of significant developments this month, but here's what we have.

THE PUBLIC - Like last month, I haven't seen any new surveys regarding public awareness and attitudes towards the transition. One thing I would really like to see is a poll of consumers who have bought the 4:3 digital SDTVs which have replaced analog sets in the 25"-to-30" range (see the MANUFACTURERS section a few paragraphs down). Have they been checking out the digital broadcast stations, or sticking with the ones they know? If they have been checking them out, what do they think of downrezzed, letterboxed HD programming? Are they zooming or stretching it to fill their screens?

My May 6th post noted new public-awareness campaigns by the National Association of Broadcasters, plus a joint effort by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable Television Association.

BROADCASTING - Another relatively quiet month in this area. My May 1st entry reported on a couple of articles that taken together point toward a Spring '07 HD conversion of PBS' Newshour With Jim Lehrer, which could actually make it the first HD nightly newscast. Hopes for a local (I'm in the Boston area) breakthrough in HD news are being put further on hold - to update my comments in last month's recap, an AVS post by Bob Yankowitz of our local CBS affiliate confirms that plans to convert CBS owned-and-operated news operations to HD are still on hold, and also mentions that Boston is likely to trail Chicago in this process.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - An interesting article appeared in CableWorld on April 17th (just too late for me to notice it for last month) interviewing nine cable heads, and asking them about their five-year plans. A sobering note - only one (Jerry Kent of Cebridge Connections) mentioned HD at all. There's two ways you can take that - either they think HD will be so ubiquitous in five years as to be standard and unexceptional and boring, or that even after the transition it will still be a niche product (again, see my note on digital SDTVs in the MANUFACTURERS section).

On the non-cable front, HDBeat has articles on the roll-out of local HD stations by DirecTV and Dish Network. And Verizon's FIOS, with its impressive roster of HD channels, still continues its slow rollout.

HD NETWORKS - As far as I know, no new networks were announced in the last month. Those of us suffering from the high repeat-rate on networks like Discovery HD Theatre, PBS HD and the INHD Networks might take a little comfort from the fact that INHD is adding a new programming block.

MANUFACTURERS - Last month in this space, I gave my opinion that the new "digital SDTVs" may do very well in the 25-30" range against HD sets of similar size. On May 14th, I took another look at the big-box Sunday supplements, and this certainly appears to be the case. As I've said before, I wonder about the effects on HD programming if most people end up watching it downrezzed and letterboxed on a 480i screen.

I did finally get around to talking about next-generation DVD formats, mentioning the further confusion it's likely to cause the public, who may get their first real introduction to these formats as part of the videogame experience. (Thanks to Rodolfo La Maestra of HDTV Magazine for correcting some bad info in the latter article). There's also word from HD Beat of a possible HDMI cable for the Xbox360.

GOVERNMENT - When not busy trying to clean up the airwaves, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has some sensible concerns about the viability of analog cable post-transition.

That's all for now!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Sunday Supplements (05/14/06)

It's been a little more than a month since I covered the big-box Sunday advertising supplements, and one thing has become clear in that time; if you were expecting the recent regulations mandating digital tuners for sets in the 25"-35" range (except for tuner-less monitors) to bring a flood of cheaper widescreen HD sets to market, you can forget all about that for now. The 4:3 digital SDTV is now undisputed ruler of that domain.

There was one fairly cheap HD option; for $280 you could either get a Polaroid 15" 4:3 LCD HD monitor at Circuit City, or a Magnavox monitor with the same dimensions at Target. The cost of actual widescreen HD sets appears to have gone up recently, at least at the lower end. The cheapest tuner-included HD set I saw was $549, but that was 4:3, for widescreen you had to go up another $200 (a Westinghouse 27" model at Best Buy, after $200 instant savings). (Another thing I noticed was that monitors appear to be on a general decline, except for the smallest LCDs.)

What this indicates to me is that HD will continue to be a high-end experience for years to come, even after the transition, unless there's some serious change to this trend. When the average American replaces their TV, that replacement is likely to be an SDTV.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Gamers Get A Cheaper Path To Next-Gen DVDs

With the retail cost of HD-DVD players at about $500, and the projected cost of Blu-ray double that, the path to widespread acceptance of these formats may be via the accessories route - accessories to videogame players, to be exact.

With Microsoft in HD-DVD's corner, it's not surprising that their Xbox360 will soon have an HD-DVD drive as an accessory, as this HD Beat article shows. Price hasn't been announced yet, but speculation is running in the $150-200 range. One thing the article notes is that the drive has no HDMI outputs, and the comments section has some folks speculating on what this might mean if movie studios decide to later implement Image Constraint.

Blu-ray backer Sony will be going the same route with the upcoming Playstation 3 - in fact, they're betting the farm by including a Blu-ray drive in the basic unit and charging $600 for it. They also will lack HDMI outputs - goes into the ramifications in some depth. Certainly cheaper than a grand, 'tho.

UPDATE 05/17/06: I was wrong about lack of HDMI output on the PS3. That only applies to the cheaper ($500) version. Thanks to Rodolfo La Maestra for the correction (via the "TIPS List" maintained by HDTV Magazine).

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Better Late Than Never?

I'm not sure just how serious they are about this, but at least the National Association of Broadcasters and a CEA/NCTA tag team are making the right noises about increasing their public-education efforts in regards to the transition. Note that the CEA/NCTA say they tried to include the NAB in their campaign - did they actually expect a positive response?

Thanks to Ken H at AVS Forum for the thread that led me to the first item.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Will PBS Give Us HD Nightly News First?

Now, I'm not one of those who turn up their nose at the offerings of PBS HD just because there's actually more "Widescreen SD" than HD on there at present (they often amaze me with just how good they can make SD look). But I was happy to see this HD Beat report of a deal between PBS and Sony to expand HD production. Especially interesting was the fact that the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" will be going HD next year. A bit more digging turned up this Yahoo Finance article that specifies Spring '07 for the Newshour's conversion. I haven't read anything yet that indicates that the "Big 3" are planning to beat that timetable with their nightly news, so this is pretty exciting.