Sunday, March 25, 2007

23 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 23 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. When this deadline was announced, it was just about three years in advance of the date, so we've gone more than a third of the way down that road. This is the 12th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story. As I mentioned in this post, despite the name of this blog I do cover some stories (like the growth of HD) that are not directly transition-related (but I hope are certainly of interest to transition-watchers). Nevertheless, I've decided to move the GOVERNMENT section from the end to the slot right after THE PUBLIC, putting the two sections whose news tends to be the most transition-specific right up front where they belong. Here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 2/18 and 3/17. As usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, TVPredictions.com, Engadget HD, TV Week, and TWICE.

THE PUBLIC - I haven't seen any new surveys in the last month dealing with the public's knowledge of and/or attitude towards the transition. But the Association of Public Television Stations survey from last time (which revealed that 61 percent of over-the-air viewers had no idea that the transition was going to happen) may be enough to digest for the moment. These troubling facts make the unusual alliance I mentioned last month between cablecos, broadcasters and the consumer-electronics industry all the more important. So far this unprecedented coalition has only managed to produce another website, but this Multichannel News article details how the National Association of Broadcasters intends to do their bit (they'll be lobbying the media, and their own PSA campaign kicks off in '08).

GOVERNMENT - Of course, if campaigns like the one I just mentioned above don't seem to be getting the job done, at some point the pressure will grow to delay the transition once again (IMHO, there's a much stronger chance of that happening than there is of the Public Citizen suit mentioned last time actually amounting to something).

In fact, Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan, head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee) indicated as much recently, and even noted pundits are raising that possibility.The crux of Rep. Dingell's dissatisfaction seems to be related to the NTIA converter box program, and he's not the only one to find fault with the program's provisions, although the Consumer Electronics Association seems much happier (with all that additional business coming to some of their members, why shouldn't they be?).

What a bother, no? Kind of makes you wonder what would happen if there were no mandates, and DTV was left to advance at its own speed. You know, like the Canadians are doing.

In other news, I haven't heard any update on that bill introduced by three House Republicans designed to force broadcasters and the FCC to provide more information regarding consumer-education efforts. And the FCC's recent moves to streamline video franchising rules have finally gotten some stiff opposition from the National League of Cities, whose members' authority over provision of video services in their cities would be greatly diminished.

BROADCASTING - The retransmission story (for newcomers, I'm talking about the issue of retransmission agreements with providers over high-def signals, 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) just goes on and on and on. Lots of agreements were reached (often at the last minute), and the big question continues to be whether it will become commonplace for cablecos and other providers to pony up cash for what used to be free. Depending on whether you ask Comcast or Sinclair about their latest agreement, you get two different answers to that question. If Sinclair's interpretation is correct, then CBS's quest for Comcast cash might not be so quixotic after all. One other factor - the broadcasters have an ally that might surprise you. But cable might have a plan to do an end run around broadcasters with a new cable box design incorporating an OTA tuner!

There were a few more local stations launching HD newscasts, but the big story in this area remains the previously-reported launch of NBC's first national nightly HD newscast, now scheduled for Monday, March 26th. Still no update on the progress of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Not everything always goes forward, of course. MyNetwork TV made waves on its introduction by having the only all-HD lineup (not as hard as it sounds, considering that they were only on a couple of hours a night). But as they pare back on their scripted programming, the all-HD format is being dropped.

One of the things that often frustrates HD fans is multicasting, and few broadcasters are committed to multicasting as PBS (although state of the art encoders have mitigated the damage too some extent). Current.org (a leading source of news on public broadcasting) recently looked at the situation from several angles - an overview by Karen Everhart, a piece by technologist David Liroff which goes into the technical details of how they make choices, and one by David Felland which demonstrates that the upconverted video that's been used to save bandwidth actually takes more bitstream than true HD. Thanks to AVS poster "R Johnson" for these links (I would have put the first two in last month's recap if I'd known about them at the time).

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The big DirecTV news this month, surprisingly, was not the fallout from their "100 channels" announcement of a couple of months ago, but rather their attempt to get an exclusive deal for MLB's "Extra Innings" package. That's a bit off-topic for this blog, but there is an HD impact. Which isn't to say that the 100-channels announcement hasn't had an effect on the plans of both providers and programmers. An example of the former is this interview with Melinda Witmore from Time Warner, which plans to compete with DirecTV via use of switched video. And while not nearly as many as I'd have expected by now, there have been a couple of new-network announcements as well (see HD NETWORKS below for details).

Verizon's FiOS continued adding communities, and took quick advantage of California's new statewide franchise rules, over the objections of cities and consumer advocates. Another statewide-franchise bill has been introduced in Illinois.

Not as much news for AT&T's U-Verse service, but they did add Scripps Networks programming (including HGTV HD and Food Network TV), as well as expanding to two new markets.They also more than doubled their subscribers (but that was only from 3,000 to 7,000).Things seem pretty quiet over at Dish as well, and the only really notable Comcast news was dealt with in the retransmission story above.

We'll wrap up this section by noting the death of one provider (USDTV, which attempted to create a low-cost digital service using some of the bandwidth of local stations, and the possible birth of another (Xbox LIVE subscribers were recently offered a special HD version of a 2004 episode that was produced in 16:9 HD).

HD NETWORKS - We're a long, long way from the 100 channels DirecTV's been taking about, but at least we've got something new to report here. The MGM movie channel that I mentioned three months ago (when it was being launched in Poland has finally made it home to America. And though they're launching in early '08 and are therefore don't count officially toward the goal, DirecTV is still the first announced home for four new Disney HD networks - ESPNEWS HD, Disney Channel HD, Toon Disney HD and ABC Family HD. Meanwhile, the Weather Channel is spending tens of millions on its already-announced fall launch of The Weather Channel HD. Another previously-announced network is making progress - an HD version of the Chiller network (just added to DirecTV) will debut later.

In existing-network news, ESPN will be expanding its HD coverage in seven major sports, while simultaneously cutting back in other areas (the second article claims that the net result is that ESPN will have roughly the same number of HD hours this year as last). And Discovery HD Theatre continues its trend of special promotions with a sneak preview and big marketing plan for its ambitious Planet Earth series (information on the making of the seres is available here.

MANUFACTURERS - A critical factor in the transition will be how many existing analog TVs can replaced over the next 23 months. As I mentioned last time, we recently came up on a critical milestone in the transition, the March 1st implementation of the final phase of the FCC tuner mandate, so now every device with an analog TV tuner now also has to have a digital one. (Here's how The Boston Globe and TV Week covered this.) But since stores are allowed to sell out of existing stock, analog TV has an afterlife in the marketplace that may go on a bit longer, despite the fact that we have at least one report of an analog-free retail TV section. I've been tracking this, and expect to have a follow-up report not too long after I get this monthly update in the can.

Another critical factor, of course, is the availability of digital-to-analog converter boxes. So far, RCA, Samsung and LG have gotten into the game.

In the Next-gen DVD format war, it was another good month for Blu-ray. The format continued to dominate its competition in sales of individual discs, helped along in part by a growing gap in available titles. Another development significantly reduced HD-DVD's main advantage at the moment - the price difference, with more to come later this year. (A widely-circulated story that had Blu-ray prices dropping as low as $299 by year's end was later refuted by Sony.) And a top Hollywood consultant, looking at how last year's blockbusters will translate into this year's releases, thinks that the war could be decided in months, not years. So perhaps it's not so surprising that a Blu-ray spokesman may have gotten a bit ahead of himself by proclaiming that in three years Blu-ray would supplant DVD itself (bit of an optimist, there).

But HD-DVD's backers are hardly ready to give up. Toshiba is bundling movies with and cutting the price of its players, while increasing capacity at the same time. And however high a mountain they have to climb to stay competitive, it's nothing compared to what the VMD format (which just signed its first US distributor will have to do to survive, even as a niche player for fans of foreign and non-major-studio content.

Some other news relates to technological developments. A few months ago, I said "SED's not dead", but it's not exactly thriving, either. TiVo is promising cheaper HD recorders, but will they still work if your provider moves to Switched Video to get around bandwidth limitations? And here's something that will increase consumer familiarity with HD video - next year, new imaging chips will enable even entry-level digital cameras (that's camera, not camcorder) to record it.

We'll close with some retail news. The falling prices so many of us benefitted from during the holiday season wreaked havoc with profit margins, and it could get worse - LCD prices still have a long way to fall.


And that's all I have for now!

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