Sunday, October 29, 2006

28 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone (OK, I'm really, really late this time), and it's now 28 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 7th 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 9/18 and 10/17. (Major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, TVPredictions.com, Engadget HD, TV Week, and TWICE.)

THE PUBLIC - I actually have not seen anything lately about the public's attitude towards the coming transition. You'd think this would be a bigger story every month, so that's kind of surprising.

BROADCASTING - Last time, I reported on an eventful month for the switchover of national SD shows to HD, but things have been quiet on that front lately (I have an interesting local story for next time, 'tho). Some more cold water was thrown on the hopes wrestling fans might have for WWE in HD anytime soon. Interesting that the WWE spokesperson justified their slow-but-steady approach by saying "We do not have a platform to provide HD to consumers..". He does know they have a weekly show on The CW, right?

One area that has been moving is local news, with a handful of stations making the change in the last month - here's an example.

One thing broadcasters (specifically, the head of the NAB) have done lately that we could have done without is to call for indecency rules to be applied to cable. Because we all know two wrongs make a right, right?

Last time, I dealt with reasons that HD ads aren't more common. Hopefully recent statements from Mark Cuban and a top executive at Chase Bank will have some influence in this area.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - Things were surprisingly quiet on the Comcast front this time out, and this month's provider news centers around DirecTV, Verizon, AT&T and Echostar (Dish Network).

DirectTV's attempts to manage their bandwidth while still adding channels got a lot of coverage. Most notable was Peter Cohen's "HD Lite" lawsuit, which is sure to stir up a lot of discussion of how you define HD in the first place. Meanwhile, they continue to add new local stations,, though they'll continue to frustrate hopes for new national HD channels for some time to come, and are also continuing to take down channels when it's time for Sunday HD football. A hopeful note comes from this review of their new H20 HD receiver (with MPEG4 compression), though users of the new DVR have been mourning the loss of the TiVo interface.

Speaking of TiVo, the injunction they were granted against Dish has been stayed while Dish appeals (this replaces the temporary stay mentioned last time). It didn't go so well for Dish in the fight over distant network signals.

Meanwhile, while Verizon's FiOS continues its expansion, celebrates its first birthday and released some ambitious projections, its plans to speed up the process by pressing for statewide franchising aroused opposition in Pennsylvania, which appears to have succeeded in killing that idea in that state for now. They had much better luck in California. For some insight into Verizon's thoughts on FiOS TV, check out this TV Week interview with Verizon's Terry Denson.

AT&T is finally about to add HDTV (with two streams) to their IPTV U-Verse service, but their plans to only use fiber to the node (FTTN), and existing copper wire from the node to the customer (as opposed to Verizon's fiber direct to the customer's home, or FTTH), has given rise to some skepticism, including comments from industry vet John Malone.

Of course, not all program providers serve the home market. Frequent travelers may be pleased to know that the latest deal between On Command Video and Marriott International will enable them to access HDTV services if their rooms are equipped with flat-screen TVs. Expect other chains to follow suit.

HD NETWORKS - While I still haven't seen any formal announcements for new HD networks lately, at least the BBC is thinking about starting a US HD operation.

While it's not a new network, there are changes in the works for Universal HD, including the scaling back of old upconverts from the NBC Universal library, and more movies and sports.

Discovery's Discovery Atlas series launched with great fanfare, but it's interesting to see how the series originally announced as Atlas HD and designed as a showcase piece for Discovery HD Theatre has expanded its focus to include the SD audience, complete with a standard DVD version. I can testify to this from personal experience - during my recent trip to NYC to attend Wired NextFest, Discovery's booth revolved around Atlas, but there was not a single "Atlas HD" sign. It's still a great HD showcase, tho'.

Regarding other networks, TV Week has interesting interviews with John Ford from National Geographic HD, and Greg Moyer from Voom. And if you haven't read enough about the ongoing Comcast-HDNet situation, well here's some more.

MANUFACTURERS - While the competitive balance between NextGen DVD formats may not have changed in the last month (and Blu-ray, despite having far more studios onboard, still has not caught up to HD-DVD in number of titles available), there's plenty to report. Microsoft announced the November release of a $199 HD-DVD add-on for the XBox 360, but without an HDMI connector, which could be a problem if studios ever get around to implementing the Image Constraint Token (which downrezzes disks not played over an HDMI or DVI connector). They've also stepped up their marketing, sending out a mobile truck that made stops at the Today Show, among other places. And they've finally remedied the problem I mentioned in my August 16th entry, by adding HD-DVD availabilty info to their DVD ads. The major Blu-ray development (other than the impending release of Playstation 3) was Sony's release of the 50 GB dual-layer Blu-ray disks, enabling more HD special features. And there's actually a third, lower-cost format (VMD) launching, but without any American studio support to date.

Of course, the average consumer is still very much on the sidelines here, and so are most early adopters, as was made clear by comments made at this CES panel as well as this Kagen Research study, this report from the videostore front, and these lowered projections from Warner Brothers. Interestingly enough, NetFlix sees a future for both formats (they may be the only ones). All of this makes makes the recent victory proclamation for HD-DVD by Universal Studios president Craig Kornblau just a wee bit premature.

Possibly as a response to all this, there were continuing attempts to do an end run around the whole struggle, with a patent application filed for a hybrid disk that would combine HD-DVD and Blu-ray content on the same disk. Sounds promising, but a previous attempt along similar lines (NEC's design for a drive with heads that would play both kinds of disks) is getting the cold shoulder from drive makers, so don't get your hopes up just yet.

There's actually still hardware news out there that has nothing to do with NextGen DVDs. If you don't think we have enough TV technologies around, take heart - SED's not dead. A brand new, coming-in-a-year, would-be plasma-killer technology called Laser TV was announced. And the ultra-high-res technologies that will eventually replace HDTV have begun to make their way out of the laboratories, so the fortunate among us will get to live this whole story out again sometime in the future (if we have any money left, that is). Diego's MOXI box will be taking on TiVo Series 3 on the retail front. But it doesn't look too good for CableCard.

GOVERNMENT - Nothing new on S.2686 (Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006), which broadcasters and cablecos have been trying to influence over the issue of HD-to-SD downconversion.

In this section of my August recap, I mentioned that existing rules for the DTV converter box subsidy applied only to analog-only households, ignoring the fact that millions of cable/satellite customers have second sets that rely on over-the-air broadcasting. Now a manufacturer/broadcaster alliance has gotten together to urge the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (overseers of the program) to plug the hole, amid other suggestions.

That's all I have for now!

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