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!