Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Sunday Supplements (6/25/06)

Browsing through this week's Best Buy circular on Sunday morning, I noticed a product I hadn't seen before - the widescreen SDTV (from Toshiba; $599 for 30" and $399 for 26" tubes). I'd been wondering when something would come along for the digital TV buyer who balks at HD prices but would rather not view their widescreen programming letterboxed on a 4:3 screen.

Pricewise, you'd expect this product to come in south of a HD equivalent, but north of a 4:3 SDTV of roughly the same size. But this first offering (that I've seen, anyway) seems too close to the HD price range (at least for the 30" model) to make the sacrifice in quality worthwhile, especially since it's 480i, not 480p.

At $599, the 30" model is only $119 shy of the Samsung 30" HD tube model available at Circuit City for $719 (net of "instant savings"), but a full $300 more than the $299 than Circuit City charges for a Sylvania 32" 4:3 SDTV (Best Buy has a 32" Sharp SDTV for $329).

It's somewhat more difficult to draw a meaningful comparison for the $399 26" model, since I couldn't find any widescreen HD sets in that size in this week's ads (OK, I could hunt down something online, but the idea behind "The Sunday Supplements" feature is to focus on what retail is advertising this week, so...). There was a 26" 4:3 HD set from Magnavox - for $749. That seems a bit of an anomaly, but there you are.

So I'm left wondering if the 30" model has a future at that price point, but if a 26" widescreen is enough for you (and if you suspect that the difference between HD and SD might not be as obvious at that size, and if money is tight), then this might be something to consider.

At least according to this week's Sunday supplements.

UPDATE (6/30): Added info about the resolution. Thanks to Ben Drawbaugh from HD Beat for the catch!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Quick Update

Something to update from my latest monthly roundup.

In the GOVERMENT section, I alluded (via link) to a story that said that the FCC would impose multicast must-carry at it's June 21st meeting. This has now been put off. Interesting, since the thinking was that the vote would not have been scheduled in the first place if chairman Martin was not confident that he had the votes required for passage. Apparently not!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

32 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, it's the 17th, 32 months until the current "hard" date on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 3rd of 34 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story. So here's how they fared:

THE PUBLIC -It's been awhile since I've seen any new surveys regarding public awareness and attitudes, so I was glad to see this article from CE Pro which points to a PDF download containing an issue of The Bridge reporting on a survey by The Leichtman Group). The figures, however, don't show a lot of change. Of HD owners, 43% are watching HD programming, 57% are not. For the 43% who are watching, OTA has a tiny sliver (3%), while cable/satellite get 40%. For the 57% who are not, 40% know they're not, and 17% mistakenly believe they are. There's a lot more info as well (including some discouraging numbers regarding intent to purchase HD).

For a purely anecdotal data point, read my June 10th post.

BROADCASTING - Broadcasters modified their objections to cable downcoversion after the analog shutdown, becoming less resistant to provision of an analog signal (necessary to have a viable analog-cable package), while adding objections to conversion of HD to plain old digital cable. I covered this here and here.

They also won a major victory over cable in regard to multicasting (see the GOVERNMENT section).

No more info about broadcast news going HD. But one veteran network newsman may be about to do just that, by leaving the broadcast world for HDNet.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - There's been a common theme to most of the posts I've been writing the past month; the ability (or lack of same) of the various providers to find the bandwidth to add present and future HD networks. One of the things that will restrain cable's attempts to keep up with satellite, FIOS et al will be the need to keep analog cable around for at least a couple of years after 2/17//09, so it may be necessary to consider other methods. But if there's no way for cable to avoid a "channel gap" in the long run, will new networks delay launching?

Kind of ironic timing there, with my local Comcast region adding ESPN2 and MHD, (as well as giving NESN HD its own channel - it was previously sharing a channel with INHD2) in the space of a few days. (BTW, thanks to HD Beat for the kind comments.)

On the non-cable front, this HD Beat story reports that FIOS is embracing multicasting, as least as far as PBS is concerned, mirroring last year's cable deal.

HD NETWORKS -I haven't seen any new stories lately announcing plans for new HD networks. There was supposed to be a "summer preview" of A&E HD sometime this month (full channel launch scheduled for September), but I've heard nothing about where that might be showing (the INHD channels would be prime suspects for that, but their published schedules through the end of this month don't show anything that looks like it). INHD's new MOJO programming block caused some confusion among AVS posters speculating on the fate of INHD2 and Comcast's next channel add.

MANUFACTURERS - Schubin's Memo, my favorite source for sales data, is back after nearly two months off, and Mark is reporting that (according to the CEA)digital sets account for 59.4% of sales for the first 21 weeks of 2006. I'm still very interested in how much of that is HD vs. the new digital SDTVs. In 2005 (again, according to the CEA) HD sets accounted for about 82% of DTV sales, but that was before the tuner mandate this March positioned the SDTV as an affordable replacement option for analog owners.

On the next-gen DVD front, things are about to get more interesting with the June 25th introduction of Blu-ray. How long to the release of comparative sales figures?

GOVERNMENT - As mentioned above, the broadcasters appear set to win a big one next month as the FCC seems ready to impose multicast must-carry. But expect Congress to have something to say about this.

UPDATE (6/18): While nothing has passed the full Congress, I was remiss in neglecting to mention here the COPE act (which passed the House) and the more comprehensive telecom bill under consideration in the Senate, both of which would create a national franchising process that would make it radically easier for services like FIOS to expand. More on this soon.

That's all for the moment!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

HD Networks: How Much Carriage Is Enough?

Most of what I've been writing here lately touches either directly or indirectly with cable's struggle to stay bandwidth-competetive with its rivals. In doing that, I've been assuming that if they fail to keep up, they could end up with far fewer HD channels. But there's one thing that could prevent that. What if the lack of cable carriage keeps channels from launching in the first place? I touched on this possibility briefly in one of my first posts, but I think it deserves a bit more attention.

After all, cable is still the way most of America watches TV. HD isn't cheap, so if all the income streams (programming fees, ads, etc.) are going to be less, can you still make a viable business case from carriage on satellite, FIOS and whatever comes next? Or will the HD channel universe be constrained by what cable can carry?

I set up this AVS thread to explore the question, and got some interesting responses. Rick R points out that the channels exclusive to Dish can only be seen by 12% of TV homes. But he, as well as Fredfa and Cyclone GT, point out the "land grab" aspect, in which channels will want to get in early to stake out a position for a future in which current constaints do not apply.

NOTE: This post is ironically-timed for me, as my local Comcast just added MHD and gave NESN-HD its own channel (it had been sharing 882 with INHD2). But I think this subject will be of continuing interest, and much more so in 2007 when those new DirecTV birds go up and the "channel gap" widens.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Public Awareness (An Anecdote)

While we should never read too much into anecdotal evidence (someone always has a story about the small minority of car crashes in which a seat belt hurt instead of helped, ignoring the vast majority in which lives were saved), I thought I'd share the following anecdote while I'm trying to track down some data related to my next couple of subjects.

My housemate's mother's old TV recently went on the fritz, and before picking up a new one she called the family handyman for advice. The handyman told her to get an HD set, as other TVs would be obsolete in a couple of years, so she went with an HD set (a Sony, I believe). What neither recognized was that analogs were no longer available in the sizes she would have been interested in, so this advice inadvertently saved her from buying an SDTV (although she's seen HD and might have made that choice anyway).

So awareness does seem to be spreading out there, although not complete awareness.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Can Cable Stay Competetive?

As new HD networks launch, satellite companies add new birds and FIOS continues its slow roll-out, cable faces a severe challenge in the race to remain competetive in its HD offerings. Barring expensive system upgrades, how can they get more out of their existing bandwidth?

Most of the discussion we see online relies on simply getting rid of analog. But gains are going to be limited in the short term; Comcast, for one, plans to keep 20-40 analog channels around until at least 2011. And there are plenty of other uses (see below) for any bandwidth that's actually freed up.

Which is why it's necessary to consider other options. This very detailed article from CED magazine (which I found via this AVS post by John Mason) examines several. If you look at the graph near the top of the page, you can see the dilemma; even though analog will decline through 2010, projected HD expansion combined with proprtionally greater expansion in VOD, data and phone will result in the need for overall downstream bandwidth to go from 100-150 6mz channels today to over 200 in 2010.

Reading the article, it seems like the most promising strategies are a more-efficient codec (MPEG-4) and "switched broadcast", which replaces the everything-down-one-pipe model with one where only the subscriber-tuned digital channels (this doesn't affect analog, alas) are carried.

And if I'd gotten myself together and finished this post like I promised myself last night, the story might have ended here. But this morning, I noticed (via Swann) this USA TODAY article that points out the incompatability of CableCard with switched broadcast (which they refer to as "switched digital"). Hooray for laziness!

HD Beat's commentary this afternoon theorizes that this explains why CableCard 1.0 hasn't taken off. If so, the damage may be less than USA TODAY may think, but any delay while this is figured out can only give the "channel gap" a chance to open wider in favor of cable's competitors.