Thursday, November 30, 2006

27 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 27 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 8th 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 10/18 and 11/17. (Major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, TVPredictions.com, Engadget HD, TV Week, and TWICE.)

THE PUBLIC - Once again, I actually have not seen anything lately about the public's attitude towards the coming transition. But I believe we'll have something for next time.

BROADCASTING - No reports of high-profile national shows transitioning from SD to HD this time. But local is another story. Usually the local news is just that - reports of local news operations slowly transitioning to HD. Which is why I'm happy to see our local (Boston-area) news magazine Chronicle finally going all-HD, after broadcasting some 40 HD shows in the last seven years (that's right, they did the first one back in '99, when almost no one was able to see it in that format!). Chronicle (produced by WCVB, our local ABC affiliate, which is owned by Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting) is a great show, and I'm puzzled this hasn't gotten more notice.

Two months ago, I talked about the slow progress of HD ads, and last time I pointed to some hopeful indicators of future progress. Now we seem to be getting some actual progress (scroll to the last few paragraphs of the linked story), a development I can definitely verify from my own viewing. It's getting so I don't automatically watch every HD ad anymore!

Progress is not always in a straight line, however. NBC's Jeff Zucker seems unconcerned that NBC may actually end up with less primetime HD soon, but in his defense I have to point out that this is due to their upping the percentage of reality programming (cost-cutting again). In the long run, even shows that aren't worth watching will at least look a little nicer.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - Things were surprisingly quiet on the Comcast front last time out, but this time they're starting to get more interesting - on Nov 16th, they gave Detroit-area viewers a glimpse of the future by adding National Geographic HD and A&E HD. So far, no reports from other cities, but this is expected to change (at least for the less bandwidth-restricted regions) when INHD2 goes away (see HD NETWORKS section for more on this and another Comcast development). Comcast also seems to have an interest (as does Verizon) in snapping up RCN.

Moving on to other providers, DirecTV has been the (relatively) quiet one among the large providers lately. Other than continuing to add local HD in various markets, the main news here is some numbers concerning their HD viewership. Over at Dish Network, there continues to be bad news as far as keeping their distant network signals, with proposed federal relief probably not coming in time. Verizon's FiOS continues to add communities, resulting in these viewership figures. And AT&T continues to expand its U-Verse IPTV service, while getting ever closer to debuting HD service.

Of course, there are providers other than the ones that get mentioned every month here. For instance, Cablevision recently released their own HD subscriber figures, which have doubled in the last year. For those of us who continually fret over not having every HD channel ever launched, perhaps a little perspective can be gained by pondering life as a customer of Insight Cable (ninth biggest in the nation, and now up to a whopping eight HD channels, or as a resident of Sheboygan, Wisconsin (whose local cableco just added HD). And you don't have to be a big fish like AT&T to offer IPTV, as this story concerning the struggles of Canby Telecom to do just that demonstrates.

HD NETWORKS - You would think that with the forthcoming expansions in available bandwidth, that you would see a steady stream of channel launches or announcement of plans, instead of the tiny trickle we've been seeing lately. But that's hardly the case. While there is an announcement of a new sports channel from Comcast (which will be available to other providers as well), it's finally official that we're losing INHD2 as of Jan 1st. Will those new DirectTV birds have to be in place before anything really changes?

Existing networks have been doing some newsworthy things, 'tho. I'm guessing a lot more people know what HDNet is after the publicty surrounding Dan Rather's new show, including an appearance on Colbert. And Discovery gave us some extremely cool HD from the Space Station

MANUFACTURERS - Some things are unchanged in the NextGen DVD battle. Among consumers, even early adopters remain confused, Blu-ray's substantial lead in studio commitments still has not caught it up to HD-DVD in number of titles available, and there's still a chance for "universal" players to end the debate. But there are some significant events to report.

Most importantly, PlayStation 3 is here, and even its limited holiday-season American allotment of 400,000 units makes it the top NextGen player to date. But what percent of PS3s will be used for that purpose? At least we know that if someone goes out and buys an HD-DVD unit for their XBox 360, they've got a pretty strong interest in playing HD-DVDs. There's also a significant price cut - Samsung's Blu-ray player is now available from Amazon for a steep discount.

Let's hope (even if it's only a fool's hope) for this all to get sorted out in a reasonable amount of time, so that one of my favorite companies (Criterion) will be able to get off the fence.

There's also hardware news on an up-and-coming technology (Wireless HD), as well as one whose time may have passed (our old friend the CRT tube).

GOVERNMENT - Last time I said that I'd heard nothing new on the progress 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. But I missed this little tidbit from 10/3 where they continue the debate, but also mention that the existing telecom bills are unlikely to pass this year.

Whatever happens next will be different with Democrats in charge of telecom policy. Rep. Dingell has already expressed concern about weaknesses in the National Telecommunications & Information Administration's converter box program. If it looks like enough low-income people stand to be disenfranchised by the hard date, don't be too shocked to see it soften in some way.

That's all I have for now!

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