Sunday, April 29, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: Broadcasters

When I started this blog, I opened with a series of posts called "The Players", where I identified what I considered to be the main actors in the unfolding drama of the DTV transition. Since then, I've done twelve monthly recaps (since I'm counting down to 2/17/09, my "month" runs from the 18th to the following 17th) tracking the changes involving each group (The Public, Government, Broadcasting, Program Providers, HD Networks, and Manufacturers - retail being thrown in with Manufacturers). This series will look at what's happened over the course of those twelve months, and ask a longer-term version of the question I ask in every monthly recap - what's changed? (NOTE: This series does not replace my next monthly recap, though it will certainly make it even later than it usually is.)

Since just about every broadcast station has its digital channel up and running, most of the news in this section is usually not directly transition-related, but rather is dealing with the related matter of HD's growth within digital broadcasting, a story that will go on long past The Day. Here's how I summed up the state of things on 3/23/06:
As it stands now, the larger broadcast networks are fairly far along with the transition to HD programming, but there's certainly a few to-dos left to be done, among them:

* National News - One network (ABC) has started this by getting Good Morning America up in HD, and there are reports that Today will follow later this year. So how long will it be until some nightly news shows follow, and how much time after that will be required until remote (i.e. non-studio) HD footage becomes common?

* Non-primetime - Not my area of greatest interest, but it's worth noting that CBS is still alone (after several years) in having an HD soap. And how long before all of late-night falls in line?

* Local News - Back in January, I read this Broadcasting and Cable article on CBS's plans to convert its O&O stations' local news operations to HD, starting with Boston and Chicago stations in March. I'm in the Boston area, and am anxiously awaiting developments here (the article says they need Nextel to deploy some new microwave gear before beginning HD newscasts). I've read some scattered reports of HD local news already. How long before it becomes commonplace?

* Publicity - This is a network-specific observation (PBS is the network). PBS HD has existed as a seperate channel for some time now, and yet the only mention of it on their website lies in some well-hidden pages containing some very old info, and some Red Book production requirements. Is this channel still considered a demo? My local station (WGBH, one of the most prominent in the country) never mentions it in their "@GBH" promotional emails.

* Other Local Programming - We're lucky here in the Boston area that our ABC affiliate WCVB does the occasional episode of their magazine show Chronicle in HD. These include some of the best HD footage I've ever seen, and I really hope they start doing this more often than once every few weeks! I'd love to hear about locally-originated HD in other areas. When will HD start popping up on local digitals not associated with the "Big 5" (such as Telemundo stations and indies)?

So, what's changed in these areas? Let's go through them in the same order:

* National news - As early as May 1st I mentioned a couple of articles that taken together pointed toward a Spring '07 HD conversion of PBS's The Newshour With Jim Lehrer, which could have actually made it the first HD nightly newscast. Alas, it was not to be, and I've seen nothing since to suggest that this is imminent. Then in September, we learned (via this HDTV Magazine interview with CBS's Robert Seidel) that CBS would prefer to focus first on their local-station newscasts before giving us national HD news. While we were all waiting for something to happen, one veteran network newsman made a little news of his own by leaving the broadcast world for HDNet. In the end, it was NBC who got there first, even though it will be awhile before HD footage expands beyond the studio and the White House lawn.

*Non-primetime - News was very slow in this area, and almost all of it was made in September, when Today, The View, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy all went HD. However, many stations (such as own local TV38 in Boston) still aren't showing the HD versions of Fortune and Jeopardy.

September also revealed some future plans, such as the eventual broadcast of the HD-remastered original Star Trek, but not until enough stations are ready. Also hinting at future plans that month was WWE, which published a since-deleted story of a test HD SmackDown taping, but it may be years before actual broadcasts.

* Local news - Things started out slow in this category as well - in May the previously-noted plans to convert CBS owned-and-operated news operations to HD were put on hold indefinitely, though I've heard since that our local station is in the very early stages of the process.

But soon after I began to see stories like this of stations converting their local newsrooms to HD. Soon after that the stories became more commonplace, and the number of stations broadcasting their local news in HD rose from 10 to 24 to around 40 the last time I looked. You'd think they would be scattered widely apart, but in fact Cleveland has three. I guess this means that the best incentive to make this particular upgrade is the knowledge that your competition is doing likewise.

* Publicity - I never actually had another story in this category, but what I wrote above still stands, PBS still pays almost no attention to PBS HD.

* Other Local Programming - Disappointingly, I only came upon one story for this section all year, and that was a follow-up to one of the stories above. 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!), our local (Boston-area) news magazine Chronicle finally went all-HD in October. Chronicle (produced by WCVB, our local ABC affiliate, which is owned by Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting) is a great show, and I'm puzzled by the lack of notice this has gotten (which may explain why I haven't heard much about other cities' local HD).

Of course, other topics of interest arose over the year. While primetime HD is mostly a done deal, there are still a few holdouts, such as reality shows and animation. This TV Week story from August deals with the challenges reality shows face in converting over (it's apparently a lot easier for studio productions like Dancing With The Stars to do so than location-based shows). As for animation, the one HD episode of King of the Hill will be all for now due to a dispute with producers over aspect ratio (Fox would like to see HD animation adopt a 16:9 frame, producers aren't eager to make the change). Furthermore, NBC's decision to shift the balance of primetime programming more to the reality side of the spectrum might actually result in less HD in the short run, and in October NBC's Jeff Zucker didn't seem too concerned about that.

While hard to pin down as "broadcasting" (as they also show up on cable), I've been using this section to report on the progress of HD advertising as well. In September, Broadcasting & Cable took a look at factors holding back that progress, and in October, I noted some hopeful comments on the subject from Mark Cuban and a top advertiser. In November's report, I noted some actual sign of progress (scroll to the end of the article). But there are still obstacles to overcome, as this Boston Globe article from February notes.

One of the things DTV has brought us is multicasting, much of it devoted to standard def programming which reduces the bandwidth of the station's HD output. Most of the discussion I've seen on this has been in viewer forums, but in February I noted this TV Predictions story in which Ken Aagaard from CBS Sports agrees with the critics of this practice, but says he has no control over his HD signal once it gets to affiliates and others. One of top multicasters is PBS (although state of the art encoders have mitigated the damage too some extent), and in February (a leading source of news on public broadcasting) 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 again to AVS poster "R Johnson" for pointing me to these links.

There was a new broadcasting network to write about during the year, MyNetworkTV, largely stitched together from stations cast adrift by the WB/UPN merger. Though only broadcasting a couple of hours of network programming a day, that programming was notable mostly because it was entirely in HD, a first for broadcast networks. But as they pare back on their scripted programming, the all-HD format is being dropped.

But the biggest broadcasting story to come up was that 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. That's not technically a "transition" subject, but it did begin as a dispute over HD signals before broadening out to include all over-the-air signals. The most coverage was generated by the battle between Mediacom and Sinclair Broadcasting, which pulled 22 of its stations from Mediacom's lineup in January, sparking a call for a congressional investigation, comments from a group of Iowa legislators, and a call for FCC action from leaders of the Senate Commerce Commission, while broadcasters like CBS and the Iowa Broadcasters Association advocated a hands-off approach. Eventually, the Super Bowl prompted the two companies to reach agreement,but precedents have been set that could well lead to increased costs being passed on to us, as Sinclair plans to double overall retransmission fees this year (compared to last), CBS is making no promises that they won't eventually adopt the same stance with its owned-and-operated stations, and lots of other station owners are getting into the act. Also, depending on whether you ask Comcast or Sinclair about their latest agreement, you get two different answers to the question of whether Comcast is paying cash for something that used to be free. But in March I noted that cable might have a plan to do an end run around broadcasters with a new cable box design incorporating an OTA tuner!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: Government

When I started this blog, I opened with a series of posts called "The Players", where I identified what I considered to be the main actors in the unfolding drama of the DTV transition. Since then, I've done twelve monthly recaps (since I'm counting down to 2/17/09, my "month" runs from the 18th to the following 17th) tracking the changes involving each group (The Public, Government, Broadcasting, Program Providers, HD Networks, and Manufacturers - retail being thrown in with Manufacturers). This series will look at what's happened over the course of those twelve months, and ask a longer-term version of the question I ask in every monthly recap - what's changed? (NOTE: This series does not replace my next monthly recap, though it will probably make it even later than it usually is.)

In the beginning, I was wondering if there would be much to write about:
You can make a case for the notion that government's role in this process is just about done. After all, the "hard" date to end analog broadcasting is already set, as well the mandates for inclusion of digital tuners in all TVs (that have any tuner in the first place).

But it turns out that there are plenty of other questions involved. Not the least of which is whether the "hard" date is as much of a done deal as we think. While the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has used some differences in House and Senate language in another section of the larger Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (which contained the analog cutoff provisions) as a pretext for a lawsuit intended to overturn the entire DRA, any significant challenge to the cutoff is more likely to emerge from the political process. As I point out in my in-progress monthly recap, if even 8% of Americans are left out on The Day, that makes 24 million people, who cannot reasonably be expected to take this with good grace. They may not do much direct appealing to their representatives about a problem they're not yet aware of, but a number of those representatives have already begun to worry about it on their behalf, like Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), who with the November election became the new head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has expressed concern about weaknesses in the National Telecommunications & Information Administration's converter box program, and underscored that with a letter sent to NTIA head John Kneuer, 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. While I don't expect it to come to that, I do expect political pressure to build for more aggressive Government action. That's not a bad thing, considering that the NTIA seems to have no backup plan to deal with massive loss of reception on that day.

By the way, there actually was an attempt made to make an exception to the deadline (a two-year extension, to 2/17/11) for Spanish-language stations within 50 miles of the border, but it didn't go anywhere (last year, anyway). It was part of the big telecom reform bill S.2686 (the "Communications, Consumers' Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006"), which did not pass (see below for more on what was covered in this bill). Gary Shapiro of the CEA was concerned enough about the provision to write this letter to an unnamed Senator. It'll be interesting to see if it makes it into the next round of telecom legislation.

Assuming for the moment that the transition does go through on schedule, what kind of additional Government actions might we see? So far, we've already seen three House Republicans introduce a bill designed to force broadcasters to provide reports to the FCC on their consumer-education efforts, and to also mandate that the FCC inform Congress (but which fails to provide additional funding or a specific plan, and mandates warning labels on analog TVs, which are no longer being made). The bill (H.R. 608, introduced on 1/22/07) was referred to the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on February 2nd. The FCC itself is asking for $1.5 million in its 2008 budget for a DTV education campaign, which strikes me as just a bit insufficient to the task (so expect education funds to get some Congressional attention).

For now, the major government initiative on the schedule is the above-mentioned converter box program, and given the concerns expressed above this is another likely candidate for congressional action. For a glimpse of what might be considered, check out this list of suggestions from various manufacturers and industry groups. Until then, the program is as described here (two $40 coupons per household, first $990 million without restrictions, up to an additional $510 million but only for over-the-air households).

But cable viewers have their own set of issues to deal with. How to get digital broadcast signals to analog-only cable viewers (with or without a box)? This is where the whole issue of downconversion comes in. FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin pointed out last April that failure by cable systems to deliver local broadcast signals to all subscribers might be a violation of the Communications Act of 1992.

So how to do that? One possibility is to eliminate analog cable altogether and force everyone to get a digital box, but there seems to be little will to do that - even Comcast's Chicago experiment (more on that in my next monthly update) will allow a small set of analog channels for the boxless, and my 5/24/06 post details cable's plans to support limited analog for years to come. This is where the whole issue of downconversion comes in, and broadcasters and cablecos have very different perspectives on the matter. Current law does not allow for either digital/analog conversion or the downgrading of HD to standard DTV, but the previously mentioned telecom reform bill S.2686 would have allowed both. While broadcasters have dropped early opposition to the former (since it keeps their signals available to "legacy" customers in the same way the converter box would), both individual stations and the NAB strenuously oppose the latter. At first I could not understand the concern (as it would appear to be business suicide to piss off HD customers in this way), but the second linked article sheds some light on situations (such as multicast must-carry) where cablecos might feel the need to manage finite bandwidth in this way. The debate was going on as late as October, but in the end S.2686 died, so this will all need to be gone over again when the next bill of this type is introduced.

Also related (though not mandated at this point) to the transition is the issue of multicasting, a new situation created by the ability of broadcasters to pack multiple program streams into their digital channel. At one point, he FCC scheduled a meeting for 06/21/06 to impose multicast must-carry, but then never followed through, for whatever reason.

Less directly related is the franchising issue. This normally gets written about in the PROGRAM PROVIDERS section, but it certainly has a governmental component. There's been significant pressure to break the cable monopoly on wired access to viewer's homes (usually from the people who already have other wires there, namely the telcos). There was an attempt to replace the cumbersome community-by-community licensing process with national franchising via the COPE act (which passed the House). Unfortunately for the telco services such as Verizon FiOS and AT&T's U-Verse, the Senate version of this was in S.2686, so this was another idea that came to nothing last year. However, there's been a lot of action on the state front. While Verizon's efforts to get statewide franchising in Pennsylvania fell through, they had much better luck in California and New Jersey. And recently the FCC released an order giving local communities just 90 days to approve or reject telco franchising requests (provided they already have facilities in the city), arousing opposition from both the American Cable Association and the National League of Cities, whose members' authority over provision of video services in their cities would be greatly diminished.

With unresolved issues concerning governmental management of the transition, downconversion, etc., it looks like there'll be plenty to recap this time next year.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Tuner Mandate, pt 4 - POST DELAYED

Every couple of weeks since the final phase of the FCC tuner mandate took effect, requiring all new TV sets (not just those larger than 24", as has been the case for the last year) to include a digital tuner (unless they have no tuner at all), I've been tracking the slow disappearance from retail of the last analog sets. I had an installment scheduled for this week, but it's going to be delayed, since the remaining five installments of the "Switchover One Year Recap" series, followed by my "22 Months And Counting" monthly recap, will take up all my blogging time through the end of the month (at least). Though to judge from today's Sunday ad supplements, we're getting pretty close to the end of this story (although on-line availabilty might drag out a bit longer).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: The Public

When I started this blog, I opened with a series of posts called "The Players", where I identified what I considered to be the main actors in the unfolding drama of the DTV transition. Since then, I've done twelve monthly recaps tracking the changes involving each group (The Public, Government, Broadcasting, Program Providers, HD Networks, and Manufacturers - retail being thrown in with Manufacturers). This series will look at what's happened in the last year, and ask a longer-term version of the question I ask in every monthly recap - what's changed?

Here's part of I said in my opening post regarding the public, on March 23rd of last year:
From everything I read, the lack of public awareness of what is scheduled to happen a bit less than 35 months from now is really stunning, although I really shouldn't be too surprised, given that the story has been buried in the Business/Tech sections of most newspapers. Given the place that TV has in most households, this should be page 1, above-the-fold news, and regulary featured in the network nightly newscasts.

Now here's something I reported on February 25th of this year:
Less optimistic are some findings from the Association of Public Television Stations. Surveying over-the-air viewers, they found that 61 percent had no idea the digital transition was taking place, and almost half (given a range of options as to what they would do to get digital signals) picked "do nothing" or "don't know".

So overall, we don't seem to have made a whole lot of progress. In fact, this has often been the section of my monthly recap with little or no new developments to report that month. That APTS survey referenced in the second quote was in fact the only major survey on the transition itself that I was able to turn up in the last year.

There were, however, some surveys on related matters, such as public understanding of HD and the use of HD programming by HDTV owners. Back in May, this CE Pro article reported findings from The Leichtman Group showing that only 43% of HDTV owners watched HD programming, and that the 57% of non-watchers broke down between 40% who knew they weren't watching, and 17% who mistakenly thought they were. Two months later, a study from In-Stat came up with even worse findings - their figures found that only 36 percent of HD set owners had HD service, and they speculated that the rapid spread of HD sets may mean that percentage might actually go down, even though the overall HD-watching audience continued to rise. Then in November, this study from Magid Associates found that only 47% of HD buyers in the previous year were motivated by the desire to watch HD programming, down from 63% two years prior (evidence that HDTV buying had spread far beyond its original videophile base). But by January there was still another study, this one showing that adoption of an HD service package by existing owners had now risen above the 50 percent mark (but it should be noted that this particular study came from CTAM, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing). There was also a Daily Variety article focusing on consumer confusion.

But whether the issue is the transition to digital broadcasting itself or just the available programming options it brings, it's clear that there's still a lot of awareness to spread. And some attempts have been made. One idea that struck me as especially promising was "The HDTV Expo", a proposed traveling roadshow organized by HDTV Magazine and Affinity Marketing LLC, which was announced in September. As I said then, the involvement of one of the pioneers in HDTV (Dale Cripps) makes me hopeful that these shows will be about much more than marketing. However, Dale has recently stated that sponsorship problems have caused the idea to be temporarily delayed. Hopefully the necessary people will get behind this concept as we get closer to the end of analog broadcasting.

Others tried as well. April '06 brought announcements of new initiatives from a CEA/NCTA team-up (that's the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), followed by a May announcement from the NAB(National Association of Broadcasters). July brought another CEA team-up (this one with CTAM), as well as the announcement of two new HD-themed magazines (Resolution and 16:9 Magazine - the latter not to be confused with a Denver-area magazine of the same name covering independent film) for cable subscribers.

I'm not entirely sure what any of these efforts set out to do, or what they may have accomplished (I certainly didn't notice anything, and has anyone out there seen those new magazines I just mentioned?), but from the figures quoted above it's clear that more is needed. Which is where the biggest joint effort to date comes in, the recently-announced coalition between the CEA, NCTA and NAB, who've gotten together to plan a joint public service campaign, which has already won praise from House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell. If groups representing cable companies can get together with groups representing broadcasters, it's a sure sign that someone is taking this seriously. Right now it only has this website, but this Multichannel News article shows that the NAB will be putting significant effort into this next year (we'll have to wait and see what the other groups will be doing).

Well, I certainly hope that it's more than smoke and mirrors this time, otherwise we may well see the "tsunami of public outrage" FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein warned us about back in March of '06.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Sunday Supplements (Tuner Mandate, Part 3)

This Sunday was April 8th, more than a month since the final phase of the FCC tuner mandate took effect, requiring new all TV sets (not just those larger than 24", as has been the case for the last year) to include a digital tuner (unless they have no tuner at all). Even though stores are allowed to sell their existing stock, you'd think the analog TVs would be pretty much gone by now, but this story is not over yet! The existing stock of analog sets is shrinking and being replaced by small digital sets, but slowly (except in one case, described in the next paragraph). Like the last two times, I've gone beyond the contents of my Sunday paper for the figures below, and included the various stores' online presence (as well as Note - analog figures include sets marketed as "HD Ready", capable of displaying HD but only containing a NTSC tuner.

BEST BUY - Of the stores I've been tracking, Best Buy is clearly ahead both in getting old analogs out and small digital sets in. Even so, their circulars for the last couple of weeks still have a couple of analog sets. On the other hand, last week's circular did feature two smaller (24" and 20") digital SDTV tubes (there were no tube ads this week). Two weeks ago, had 21 analog models (down from 29 two weeks before that). Now they are down to 17. This compares to 11 24"-or-under digital SDTVs (all of which seem to be 4:3), a category not seen in this size range before March 1st.

CIRCUIT CITY - The circular for 4/1 featured four small analogs, up from three on 3/25 (but down from six on 3/4). This week, they're down to two. Two weeks ago, featured 38 analog models (up from 31 two weeks before that). Now they're down to 22. A few (three, to be specific) 24"-and-under digital SDTVs have also arrived (all from Prima, all 4:3).

TARGET - The circular for 4/1 featured one small analog, down from two on 3/25. This week their weekly ad is online-only with many fewer items, so it may not mean anything that it doesn't have any. That certainly isn't the case with their overall on-line assortment. Two weeks ago, had 60 20" or under sets, of which one had an ATSC tuner (the same number of sets as two weeks before that, but with one less ATSC set), and three sets in the 21"-to-24" range, one of which had an ATSC tuner, and one of which had no tuner at all (therefore not subject to the FCC order). Now they are down to 49 20" or under sets, one of which has an ATSC tuner, with no change in the 21"-to-24" range.

AMAZON.COM - Given the amount of TVs available here, I've restricted myself to tracking the portables. Two weeks ago there were 31 products in that category that would have been effected by the new rules (if they were post-3/1 products). Of these, 28 were actual TVs, and three were radios with TV tuners for audio reception. Also, of these 31, 27 were available new, and four were only available on a used/refurbished basis. Now it is actually up to 32 products (five are used/refurbished, and five are radios with TV audio tuners). Still no ATSC tuners on offer in this section. Because Amazon represents sellers that deal in used/refurbished product, this may be one of the last high-profile places analog sets will be found going forward.

Circuit City and Best Buy still carry NTSC DVD recorders (again, the shorter Target ad doesn't have any, and the regular online descriptions don't have enough info for me to say whether their DVD recorders have tuners).

From what I've seen of the new small digital sets, the prices may be higher, but not nearly enough to cause sticker shock or cause anyone not to replace their dead analog. The only category where this could still be a problem is the smallest tube portables, where a digital tuner might add noticeably to the price of a set that would otherwise go for less than $50 (perhaps why I'm not seeing digitals there yet).

When I started this series, I wasn't sure I'd still be doing it now. We'll try again in two weeks and see if analog has finally breathed its last in the meantime.