Sunday, September 24, 2006

29 Months And Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone (a week ago, actually), and it's now 29 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 6th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story. When this deadline was announced, it was just about three years in advance of the date. Now it's less than two-and-a-half years away. Here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 8/17 and 9/17.

THE PUBLIC -I've reported on a bunch of new marketing/educational campaigns in the last few months, but one that looks especially interesting comes from HDTV Magazine and Affinity Marketing LLC. They plan to put on up to 50 HDTV Expos in various TV markets. With the involvement of one of the pioneers in HDTV (Dale Cripps), I'm hopeful that these shows will be about much more than marketing. Another group (representing major studios and consumer electronics companies) have announced an HDTV Guide for consumers.

Recently, Phillip Swann at TVPredictions.com wrote two articles each listing five factors that he thinks will help and hinder HDTV's long-term success. HD Beat (which changed its name to Engadget HD after the 17th), gave their own spin on these articles here and here.

BROADCASTING - Last time, I said that I hadn't seen any news updating the struggle between broadcasters and cable over cable's wish to downconvert HD to SD digital broadcast after the analog shutdown. I've done some digging, but this story really belongs in GOVERNMENT (see below), since it concerns a Senate bill.

It was an eventful month for the switchover of SD shows to HD, both network (Today, The View and syndication (Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy). However, many stations (such as own local TV38 in Boston) aren't showing the HD versions of Fortune and Jeopardy. This appears to be the reason that CBS Paramount, which has remastered the original Star Trek in HD, won't show them that way until enough stations are ready. Also taking awhile (as in years) to reach viewers in HD will be WWE, which has begun testing.

One area of programming that has not seen any switchovers is network news. HDTV Magazine recently interviewed CBS's Robert Seidel on the subject, who said that they would prefer to focus first on their local newscasts, which are on much longer than the national. He says this is well on the way to happening in the next few months (as previously reported, this was supposed to be happening by now, but that's still good to hear).

Not sure what category this should go in, but if you're interested in why there aren't more HD commercials, this Broadcasting & Cable article gives some insight.

Finally, here's a little chart from TVWeek.com that compares how the various networks measure up HD-wise.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - Three providers dominated the recent news: Comcast, DirecTV and Echostar (Dish Network). It was mostly good news for Comcast. A major source of frustration for HD viewers has been the paltry offerings from HD VOD. Now Comcast has announced an increase to 100 hours of HD VOD (a major component of which is Starz/Encore HD On Demand. The only downside so far is the negative reaction to the typical Starz crop-job on Narnia, the focus of Comcast's recent ad blitz trumpeting HD OnDemand. Looking ahead, Comcast COO Steve Burke predicted they will offer 32-35 HD Channels, including locals, by the 3rd quarter of 2007 (I'm assuming that this is for the areas with the most bandwidth, which would mean a gain of 12-15 channels), as well as more DVR storage and TiVo service in the near future.

The news for DirectTV customers isn't so great. While their predictions for the end of '07 certainly sound good (room for 1500 local and 150 national channels), there may not be much progress until the two satellites that will enable that feat go on-line next year. In fact, DirectTV's Eric Shanks says here and here that there may not be any new national channels until the 2nd quarter of '07. In fact, at certain times they've had to temporarily take down a station to make way for Sunday HD football.

Dish has plenty of channels, but other serious problems. While the decision (in TiVo's favor) forcing them to drop their DVR service has been stayed, it's certainly an ominous thing to have hanging over your head. Let's hope for a licensing agreement that will bring the benefits of genuine TiVo service to Dish's DVR customers, as Comcast and now Cox plan to do. This, of course, is on top of the continuing legal battle over local signals.

Not much on Verizon's FiOS this time (the usual reports of new local franchises keep trickling in), but I was interested to see this article revealing that more than 60 percent of their customers get a high-def box, and more than half have both HD and DVR. Also, Verizon expects to reach more than six million homes by the end of this year, and 20 million by the end of 2009.

HD NETWORKS - Again, I still haven't seen any formal announcements for new HD networks lately. A&E HD launched very softly (nothing on their website) into very limited distribution. Given how much more bandwidth is expected to be available a year from now (see PROGRAM PROVIDERS), you'd think that there would be a lot more networks announcing future plans by now.

As far as existing networks go, there's been a lot of speculation about the future of INHD2, as it has been dropped in many locations. This interview with INHD's Rob Jacobson won't change that - it's still on for now, but I don't exactly hear a strong commitment being made here. There's better news coming from two networks. After the TV Week interview with Clint Stinchcomb of Discovery HD Theatre (concerning his programming expansion plans) that I mentioned last time, it's nice to see how quickly it was followed through with this announcement, even though we won't see the fruits until next year. And now MHD's Eric Sherman is telling TV Week that they will easily double or triple the hours of content by this time next year (they'd better - of all the rerun-heavy all-HD channels out there, MHD is without a doubt the rerun-heaviest).

Mark Cuban has some thoughts on the state of HD (and HDNet) here, here and here. Meanwhile, The Dallas Morning News looks at HDNet's five-year anniversary here.

MANUFACTURERS - The HD TiVo (AKA Series 3) has landed, but at $800 many are wondering if this is going to entice enough people away from their cableco DVRs. TiVo's Jim Denney makes their case in this TV Week interview.

There've been some announcements (titles and players) in the NextGen DVD arena, but nothing that seems to change the competitive balance. There are, however, plenty of articles (like this and this) around reporting consumer reluctance to bite in this area until there's an apparent winner. Too bad, since Shane Sturgeon at HDTV Magazine does a pretty good job of letting us know that that
might not happen
for a good long while (thanks to Engadget HD for pointing me at Shane's article).

GOVERNMENT - I made mention above (and in previous months) of the controversy over HD-to-SD downconversion after 2/17/09. The bill broadcasters are trying to influence is S.2686 (Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006). The reason I haven't seen any news about it lately is that nothing has happened on it since June. The link I've provided has links to two versions of the bill. I'll keep an eye on this.

That's all for the moment!

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