Sunday, December 31, 2006

26 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 26 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 9th 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 years and two months away. Here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 11/18 and 12/17. (Major news sources for this update include Multichannel News,, Engadget HD, TV Week, and TWICE.)

THE PUBLIC - While I still haven't seen anything new lately about the public's attitude towards the coming transition in the broader sense, I have been reading about the continuing public confusion (or perhaps simple disinterest) regarding the use of their new HDTVs to actually receive HD programming. This Engadget HD piece references this USA Today article reporting on a study by Frank N. Magid Associates, but is also notable for the horror stories passed on by readers in the comment section.

The most interesting fact I gleaned from this survey was that the percentage of new HD buyers who looked forward to using their sets for HD programming was now a minority (47% versus 63% two years ago). On reflection, this isn't a total shock. With HDTVs becoming a mass-market consumer item, the audience for HD sets has expanded far beyond its videophile roots, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that percentage continue to go down in the short term. Even with these numbers, the HD audience will continue to grow, but if you were expecting an explosion of new HD channels once the bandwidth shortage is solved, you might want to revise your expectations somewhat.

Regarding the overall transition, it's interesting to that the Netherlands recently ended analog broadcasting without a hitch. Of course, they don't have over 20 million homes relying completely on over-the-air reception (94% are cable subscribers).

BROADCASTING - While there are still no reports of high-profile national shows transitioning from SD to HD this time, the number of CBS football games broadcast in HD may be going up soon . Meanwhile, the small trickle of local news operations switching to HD continues - I've seen two additional reports since did this recent recap.

As a counterpoint to last month's comments from NBC's Jeff Zucker, recent comments from Mike Shaw from ABC were markedly more pro-HD. Somewhat less pro-HD are the people at Sinclair Broadcasting, who don't seem bothered at all when HD viewers can't watch their stations.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - After a pickup last month, things are fairly quiet on the Comcast front again, other than the fact that the National Geographic HD rollout has picked up speed (I'm not sure whether A&E HD has gotten beyond Detroit), and that they've signed a deal with Disney to use their programming to expand their HDVOD lineup starting next fall.

In contrast, there's been plenty going on at DirecTV lately. For starters, they're being taken over, prompting to speculate on what it might mean for HD in general. Then they were sued by Time Warner, causing them to change that Jessica Simpson "I totally don't know what that is, but I want it" ad. David Hill, their entertainment president, also made some news with a recent speech. We all know that D* will supposedly have the capacity to handle 150 national HD stations once those birds go up in '07, but now we're being given some idea of how many they plan to actually offer in the shorter term (more than 40). Of course, there will have to be a number of new channel launches if they want to get to even that smaller number, which might be why he also made a strong pitch for networks to get busy on that front.

Meanwhile, Dish Network officially cut off their distant network signals, but cut a deal with a third party that broadcasters described as a "transparent sham" to get around the injunction.

Rounding out the provider news, AT&T's U-Verse service finally added HD, and Canada's Rogers Cable reports that their HD sub base has doubled in the last year. Of course, Verizon's FiOS continues to add communities as well.

HD NETWORKS - Another month of no new channel announcements - in the USA, at least. However, Canadians will be getting a kids' service called BabyHD fairly soon. It'll be interesting to see if someone in the States decides to pick this one up. And MGM will have an HD movie channel - in Poland. But the previously-announced Versus/Golf channel is ready to launch in January, as recent posts to this AVS Forum thread attest.

Speaking of non-announcements, I was intrigued to read that South Park was conducting HD tests, but was disappointed to read that this had nothing to do with any plans to launch Comedy Central in HD (and the CC exec quoted was extremely tight-lipped concerning the purpose of the test). While it's hard to see a whole lot of benefit that particular series would obtain from HD conversion in the first place, my response to HD purists who claim to never watch SD anymore is that I'm not going to give up my Daily Show, South Park, Colbert Report or Reno 911, so it would have been nice if it had indicated a channel launch.

So lets move on to the existing channels. HDNet has been busy - having Dan Rather speak at the HD World conference, beefing up their news operation with another network veteran, and including Blu-ray copies of one of its specials with Dell's pricey new Blu-ray-built-in laptop. As stated above, National Geographic HD has expanded its footprint considerably due to the Comcast roll-out. And MHD will soon take a big step forward by being added to Time Warner systems (now that many more people are watching, perhaps they can produce enough new programming that they don't come across as some kind of demo loop).

Speaking of channels which could use more programming, I was pleased to see this Engadget HD piece concerning PBS's plan to produce new episodes of their classic Matinee At The Bijou series, including HD versions. (If you read down to the comment section, you'll see a comment from me that doesn't make sense anymore, as it refers to something they've corrected from an earlier version of the post). You can follow the progress of this project at the "Bijou Is Back" blog.

MANUFACTURERS - The big story here, of course, was the holiday shopping season, in which HDTVs really seemed to emerge as a mainstream product, spurred on by huge Black Friday discounts , and some significant Cyber Monday action as well, discounts so large that they actually hurt retailers' bottom lines. There's more cutting to come, as Vizio seems poised to make 1080P affordable for many more people. All this recent buying highlights a change in the overall TV marketplace, as flat panels now represent the majority of sets sold.

On the NextGen DVD front, the Blu-ray Disc association finally launched a big marketing campaign. Perhaps it will help counter the growing perception that they're starting to lose this thing. Then again, perhaps the possibility of massive price cuts will help even more.

Sometimes we forget that HD-DVD and Blu-ray actually have a bit of competition (though who knows for how long) in this game. I've previously noted a format called VMD, which intends to compete at a much lower price point (although I'm not sure yet whether they have any American sellers lined up). They are, however, getting some content support from a German film distributor and an included bundle of 10 Bollywood titles. Meanwhile, the Chinese are preparing to go their own way on this with the '08 launch of the EVD format.

One of the things I've been wondering about is what will happen to all the little TVs (including portables) when March '07 comes around and everything with a tuner (not just TVs) has to have a digital tuner as well. How are they going pull that off? This Engadget HD piece gives fans of that form factor some hope.

GOVERNMENT - Last time I said that things would be different now that the Democrats would be taking over Congress. To underscore that, here's a report of a letter sent to NTIA head John Kneuer.In short, leading Democrats are making the point that the deadline could indeed be derailed if the converter-box program is not made more consumer-friendly, or if the public is not better informed. And a mostly-Democratic group of Senate Commerce Committee members is urging the FCC to tread carefully before revising media-ownership rules. The FCC also took some fire from Comcast over practices that seem to favor the telecoms over cable (and here's an example).

That's all I have for now!