Thursday, February 01, 2007

25 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 25 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 10th 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 we're only one month away from the two-year mark. Here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 12/18 and 1/17. Major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, TVPredictions.com, Engadget HD, TV Week, and TWICE.

THE PUBLIC - With little more than two years to go, I'm amazed when a month goes by and I don't see anything concerning public knowledge of (or attitude towards) the overall transition, but it still seems to happen as often as not. However, one aspect of that is is starting to get some continued attention - the confusion among new HDTV owners as to how to get HD, even what it is. This Daily Variety story features comments from Matt Swanston of the CEA. Of course, various parties keep trying to explain it all, and maybe someday it will take.

BROADCASTING - The big story in broadcasting this month involves the issue of retransmission agreements with cablecos, with broadcasters arguing for fees that are closer to that paid to cable channels, despite the fact that broadcast signals are also available free over-the-air. So far, the most noteworthy battle has been between Mediacom Communications and Sinclair Broadcasting, which came to a head after Sinclair pulled 22 stations from the cable company two days after the FCC denied Mediacom's complaint and three days after Sinclair was blasted by the American Cable Association. Since then, Mediacom has appealed that FCC ruling and called for a congressional investigation, prompting this response from Sinclair. On top of that, the state of Iowa has weighed in on the matter. This situation is still unresolved on as of this writing (1/31), and with this weekend's Super Bowl coming up, the next few days should be interesting.

In other news, Mark Cuban has some more thoughts about what broadcasters are doing wrong in regards to HD (thanks to Engadget HD for pointing me to this).

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - DirecTV leads off this month with their big announcement of 100 HD channels by year's end. Needless to say, skepticism (which I fully share) abounds, but they only have to do a fraction of what they say in order to change this game significantly (enough to attract the attention of Newsweek). There are a lot more facets to this story than I have space to cover here, so my detailed thoughts can be read over here.

With all this, you might be forgiven for not even noticing that their aquisition by Liberty Media has become official (as in officially announced, it won't close until mid-2007), or that they seem to be interested in buying VOOM (but apparently not interested in doing likewise with Dish, at least at this time). And somehow they even found time to sit down and defend their HD PQ.

In the meantime, Dish is still the HD leader for now, and is fighting for that business with a no-upfront-fee DVR and a simplified HD pricing structure. They also are not interested in a merger with DirecTV.

The telcos are on the move as well, with FiOS taking full advantage of New Jersey's new statewide franchise law, bumping their speed and adding features. Meanwhile, AT&T's U-Verse expanded to 11 markets (short of the 15 they were predicting by year's end), but was sued by the city of Milwaukee in a dispute over how the service should be regulated.

Others were also active. Comcast, which has been testing TiVo software, demonstrated it at CES, and I've got to say it looks pretty good (especially compared to the current iGuide software). They've also been rolling out their combined Versus/Golf channel. A company called Broadlogic unveiled a new processor called TeraPix that could help free up cable bandwidth by compressing an 80-channel analog basic package from 500Mz all the way down to 50Mz.

There was also news about various alternative ways to get content onto your TV. Apple introduced AppleTV, and there were also announcements from Microsoft,
Sony and Skype.

HD NETWORKS - As noted above, DirecTV listed a whole lot of new networks as launching this year. This Multichannel News article gives the reactions of the networks themselves. So far, it looks like we've got three (count 'em, three) solid, scheduled releases from that group - CNN, Cartoon Network and TBS (all in September). NBCU and the Fox-affiliated networks are definitely going to do something, but they're not giving solid what-and-when details yet. (Separately, NBCU announced Chiller, an SD/HD horror channel.)

Moving on to the existing networks, I was disappointed that Discovery's Atlas project hasn't been as successful as hoped, but very glad that they're going forward with it. I'm also intrigued by their new Planet Earth. And HDNet has launched a Dan Rather DVD line (with HD versions to follow sometime this year).

MANUFACTURERS - This was a big month for NextGen DVDs, as two possible solutions to the format wars made their appearance. First was a combo player from LG, although it's lack of support for HD-DVD special features meant it had to debut without the HD-DVD logo. Given that's it's more expensive than a combination of a PS3 and a fully-functional HD-DVD player, I've got my doubts about this one. A cheaper way around this is Warner's new dual-format disk, referred to as "Total Hi Def", which three major retailers have agreed to support. But Warner's is already supporting both formats, and for this to work all those Blu-ray-only studios would have to adopt this idea as well.

So let's be pessimistic (or realistic) for a moment and resign ourselves to an ongoing war. Who's winning? So far, the Blu-ray Disk Association sounds more confident in predicting total victory by 2010. If their figures showing a strong majority of PS3 buyers (1M so far) planning to use their machines as Blu-ray players are accurate, that may not be very far-fetched. Still, backers of HD-DVD remain upbeat, pointing out that the format is still ahead in players sold - unless you count all those PS3s (which are apparently getting good reviews when judged as Blu-ray players). It may be telling that Micosoft has stated that they definitely will not include an HD-DVD drive in the Xbox 360, sticking to the add-on, although they are also working on a new low-cost design for HD DVD players. It may also be significant that the price differential is also coming down, with the second generation Samsung going for $800 list when it debuts in March.

In other hardware news, digital took over in TV sales in '06 (a foregone conclusion once analog sets were restricted to smaller sizes back in March).

GOVERNMENT - The big stories here are the FCC's denial of Comcast's CableCARD waiver and their approval of fast-track video franchising for telcos. Both decisions aroused considerable opposition.

Finally, let's hope that public awareness of the analog cut-off improves considerably by 2/17/09, since apparently the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has no backup plan to deal with massive loss of reception on that day.

And that's all I have for now!

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