Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Other Shoe Drops: WCVB Brings HD Local News To Boston.

Ever since October, when WCVB (Channel 5 in Boston) announced that their Mon-Fri magazine show Chronicle would go all-HD with the aid of a new HD control room, I have been waiting for the next step forward - and now we have it. Starting Monday, May 14th, NewsCenter 5 will bring HD local news to the Boston area for the first time.

There's lots of related info (including a tour of the new set) at WCVB's HD info page.

UPDATE 5/14: Here's the Globe article on the subject. The set looks very nice. Now let's get some cameras out in the field, like you have with Chronicle.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

22 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 22 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. Actually, this recap is so late (blame my six yearly-recap posts) that the 17th will be coming around again not too long after it goes out. This is the 13th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story. As I've said before, despite the name of this blog I do cover some stories (like the growth of HD) that are not directly transition-related (but strike me as being of interest to transition-watchers). Here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 3/18 and 4/17. As usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News,, Engadget HD, TV Week, and TWICE.

THE PUBLIC - It's been two months, and I'm still a bit freaked out by that Association of Public Television Stations survey (the one which revealed that 61 percent of over-the-air viewers had no idea that the transition was going to happen). The APTS was one of the groups represented on a panel on the transition at the recent CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) Washington Forum, sharing the stage with representatives from the CEA, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Given the importance of the discussion, I thought you might like to see these three recaps (as each covers the panel a bit differently). Myself, I'm a bit concerned over how blase CEA President Gary Shapiro came across, especially his comment that "Less than 15% of homes will be shut out totally". OK, let's assume that everyone works hard and the figure on The Day is only 8%. In a nation of 300 million people, that's 24 million people. Is it realistic to expect them to take this gracefully? So, even though the CEA estimates that 28 percent of American households now own an HD set, let's not get complacent.

GOVERNMENT - Congress was busy with transition-related business recently. Everyone was eager to express an opinion on the rules for the converter-box program designed to ease the transition for analog TV owners, and on March 27th many congresspeople and other interested parties had a chance to air their views on that and other transition-related issues at a meeting of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Democrats wanting more funding pointed to the large number of number of TVs needing a converter box (including extra TVs in cable/satellite homes), while Republicans countered with much lower estimates of those who would actually want coupons, estimates that indicate that current funding is more than adequate. Who's right? You can download a Windows Media file of the entire subcommittee hearing here, and judge for yourself. (Warning: it's 131MB, so you might want to stream it instead. It's also nearly three hours long, but if you can spare the time you'll definitely come away knowing a lot more about where the various players stand.) Among the witnesses at the meeting was Time Warner CEO Glenn Britt, arguing for cable's ability to convert DTV signals to analog at the headend (avoiding the need to lease set-tops to millions of legacy consumers). One good sign; Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle seemed committed to keeping the date, largely in response to a very compelling witness (a mother of a 9-11 victim) for first-responder concerns.

The FCC has been active as well. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is now floating a plan for mandatory dual carriage of both analog and digital signals by cable systems unless all subscribers have the necessary DTV reception equipment. As expected, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association panned the plan. Also critical was DTV pundit Phillip Swann, while Ben Drawbaugh of Engadget HD saw some potential good in it.

Finally, the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters featured a speech by CEO David Rehr, reiterating their opposition to downconversion of broadcast HD to standard DTV, and accusing cable companies of planning to give their own networks an advantage.

BROADCASTING - After all the coverage of the retransmission issue over the last several months, it's surprising that I only have this one story of a three-year agreement between Charter Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group. As usual, no one's talking about whether or how much cash was exchanged.

There was more news regarding the news in HD. In addition to the usual local conversions, NBC Nightly News also went HD. As expected, it's in the early phase of HD production (mostly studio shots and reports from the White House lawn), and it'll be awhile before we see a lot of HD location footage. Getting back to the local stations, here's some information on the newsroom tools and HD camcorders those conversions require.

There are some other stories relating to new HD. While I'm not sure how much of it we'll see here in the USA, it's interesting to note that the Vatican is going HD. What we can see here is the FOX networks, who are ramping up their HD sports coverage. Speaking of sports, the NFL recently OKed HD for instant replay

I've also got a few items of miscellany. With all the talk about recovery of the analog broadcast spectrum, I thought some of you might be interested in this article that explains in detail where the spectrum is going under current plans. This TV Week article looks at the effect (or lack of same) of HD on ratings. An area where HD definitely does have an effect is the vividness of action footage, as the producer/director of 24 testifies.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - I have a bit more information on DirecTVs HD plans. As this article shows, DirecTV is planning to reach that number partly by counting multiple feeds of sports packages such as Sunday Ticket (13 channels), Extra Innings and other sports packages. They still say that they'll have 70-80 full-time national channels (which still means at least 60 more than they have now). One of those channels will be the new Tennis Channel. They're also planning to get into VOD, utilizing a broadband connection. And some of DirecTV's competitors (by which I mean Echostar and the NCTA) got to weigh in on the Liberty-DirecTV merger in recent filings with the FCC.

Surprisingly, not much news from Dish in this period (but I believe that will be different next time). What little there was wasn't good; they're not getting Extra Innings.

Comcast is certainly busy; they're about to begin an important experiment in one of their major regions, one that could help keep them competitive with DirecTV, and even surpass them. By July 1st, all analog set-top boxes in Chicago will be replaced with digital boxes, and expanded basic will be digital only (leaving 34 basic analog channels for customers without boxes). Comcast has told reporters that the new boxes will have capacity for 120 HD channels, though I'm not sure whether that's due to bandwidth reclamation, switched video or both. Speaking personally, I can't wait to hear their national rollout schedule on this one. They've also added Showtime VOD to their VOD offerings (good, I'm way behind on The Tudors). In a Boston-area initiative, they've teamed up with Circuit City to start a new electronics store called Connect, designed to offer customers a chance to purchase hardware and connect services at the same time.

FiOS continued on its expansion path, adding cities and getting some good news (Florida came closer to passing a franchise-reform bill). They also improved their competitive position in New England by adding NESN (not having to give up Sox games in HD will make switching this an easier decision for quite a few people). They've also added other channels elsewhere.

Things aare picking up on the U-Verse front; they've won a California franchise and influenced new Minnesota state franchising legislation. They've also added Kansas City as their 15th market, and strengthened their marketing with an offer of Free HD for a year.

Moving on to other providers, the larger cable systems got some good news - unlike Dish, they get to keep Extra Innings, and will get The Baseball Channel in 2009. But one cable company got some bad news - Cablevision lost a case regarding their Network DVR (basically a server that gives customers DVR functionality without having a box in the house). So apparently having the disk drive is OK in one place, but not in another. Don't you just love copyright law? Naturally, they're appealing. Looking at the other side of the franchise process, cities and counties are ramping up their challenge to streamlined franchising, challenging the FCC in three separate courts. There were some channel adds as well - Cablevision added Discovery HD Theatre and National Geographic HD, and Time Warner announced four additions - ESPN2 HD now, plus three other Disney channels (ABC Family HD, Disney Channel HD and ESPNEWS HD) once they launch next year.

HD NETWORKS -Surprisingly, there were only two new network announcements (Tennis Channel, see PROGRAM PROVIDERS above, and religious broadcaster TBN) during this period. While it's not a new network, a change in focus has turned INHD into MOJO. TV Week spoke to Robert Jacobson of In Demand Networks concerning the change. There were also an indications of a possible network to come - C-SPAN has produced an HD documentary called Capitol (it's for Comcast VOD, but who knows what it could lead to?). My next report will have many more new announcements.

There's news from existing networks as well. Several had new programming announcements, including National Geographic Channel, the Voom family, Discovery HD Theatre and ESPN. A different picture was in effect at FSN, which has Pittsburgh hockey fans upset over their lack of HD Penguins coverage. Happier viewers helped power Discovery's new Planet Earth to the kind of ratings success that recently eluded Atlas.

MANUFACTURERS - The effect of current and upcoming federal mandates leads off this section. The big enabling product that everyone hopes will smooth the transition is the digital-to-analog converter, and we now have some solid pricing from one manufacturer. The most recent mandate to go into effect was the March 1st implementation of the final phase of the FCC tuner mandate, and I continue to track the slow death of analog TV (at least one more post to go). The mandate covers everything with a NTSC tuner (not just TVs), such as this new ATSC DVD recorder from Sony. And what would a mandate be without a waiver request? Bathroom fixture king Kohler wants one (to last through 1/1/08) so it can include old-fashioned analog tuners in its bathroom mirrors. Wow. Hmmm, perhaps this is why leading portable manufacturers like Coby have yet to announce any ATSC portables? Now we turn to the next mandate coming up, the July 1st ban on cable set top boxes with integrated security, which in practical terms means mandatory CableCARD devices. While manufacturers of CC STBs are gearing up for July 1st, higher-than-expected HD-box demand is causing shortages as cablecos run out of their last shipments of non-CC boxes.

In the NextGen DVD war, this was a month to remember that it's not over just yet. After a string of good news for the Blu-ray camp, Toshiba hit back with significant price cuts, and the HD DVD Promotions group let us know about a flood of new discs, plus figures showing that sales of standalone HD-DVD players have passed 100,000. And if you were shopping at Amazon, you could snap up a player for a mere $305(or you could have gone the other way and picked up Samsung's original Blu-ray player for $499, the same price as the entry level PS3 that Sony just discontinued. There were other hopeful signs; for the moment, European studios favor HD-DVD, and now Samsung has announced a combo player that will support HD-DVD properly, unlike LG's model. Hopefully the price premium won't be as large, either.

When it comes to American disc sales, though, things were looking much better for Blu-ray. Figures for the week ending 3/18 showed that 9 of the top 10 titles were Blu-ray, with the runaway champ being Casino Royale, the first NextGen DVD to ship over 100,000 units. HD DVD fans do have the small consolation that they will get The Matrix Trilogy first. There are some new studio announcements too. While HD-DVD has gained the support of First Look Studios, a new firm will be opening Blu-ray to the indie film world.

While the PS3 has been a big boost to Blu-ray, the reverse is hardly the case. According to these sales figures from February from the NDP Group, PS3 has trailed both Wii (the surprise leader) and XBox by a wide margin. Perhaps part of this is simply the satisfaction of the original pent-up demand, but another part of it has to be that a lot of gamers (especially those without HDTVs) simply don't see the value in the additional expense (especially now that Sony has canned the entry-level model). Perhaps these figures will lead to price cuts soon. And perhaps his will once again benefit Blu-ray more than it does the PS3 itself. Surprisingly, this has not stopped Microsoft going the same route with its new XBox 360 Elite, charging $480 for to give customers more storage and the ability to download HD content (rather than integrating their HD-DVD add-on). I know the megatrend in entertainment formats is away from physical objects and towards the purely digital, but I can't help but wonder if this particular product is just a little bit ahead of the adoption curve. Or is it because Microsoft is moving away from HD-DVD?

One last piece of good news for Blu-ray fans, there will be hardware inprovements (and we're talking about the basic spec, not any particular product) after October 31.

But as I said a few paragraphs back, it's not over just yet. In fact, in some ways it's barely begun. NextGen rentals through NetFlix represent only 1% of their business. And at least one prominent Hollywood executive (Jeffrey Katzenberg of Dreamworks) believes that the real winner in the format wars will be nobody. I'm not sure if that's true in the long run, but I can see his point. To repeat something I said in my one year Manufacturers recap we need to remember that though VCRs thrived in the middle of a long-running format war, those machines were delivering completely new capabilities (time-shifting and watching of pre-recorded material) to customers, and that's simply not the case this time around. Even the victor doesn't always win in the long run - remember when LaserDisc looked like "the future" after having outlasted RCA Selectavision (which itself sold 16.4 million discs back in the 80s)?

In other hardware news, the hangover from the big HD holiday buying frenzy continued to bring more misery to retailers during this period. As a consequence, Tweeter is shrinking and redefining itself and Circuit City's response actually includes laying off its best-paid sales associates and replacing them with people willing to work for as low as $8 an hour (that'll sure improve our buying experience, I bet).
In contrast, Best Buy seems to be doing just fine. Also taking a hit are plasma TVs in general, whose dollar volume dropped 16% year-to-year, largely because large price drops did not increase unit volume enough to offset the lower prices.

We'll close with a look at the next "next big thing" in display technology, OLED. With eye-popping specs such as a 1,000,00:1 contrast ratio and unheard-of thinness, the first actual product, an 11" HD set (smallest I've ever heard of) is scheduled from Sony this year. Looking further ahead, here's an example of what's in the works.

And that's all I have at this moment!

EDIT (5/11) - Clarified the fact that the Comcast analog-box elimination experiment is occuring in Chicago.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: Manufacturers

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 has already made it much later than it usually is.)

It's interesting to note that when I wrote my first hardware-related post, the looming war between NextGen DVD formats wasn't even mentioned, considering how they've come to dominate hardware news. Here's how things looked on 4/4/06:
Let me say right up front that this will not be a hardware-centric blog. You can get tons of detailed tech specs, etc. from many other sources, such as HDTV Magazine (they publish an extremely extensive annual review by Rodolfo La Maestra). But the hardware that is made (and sold) will clearly affect the programming that is produced and distributed, and the channels that are launched and carried. That makes hardware developments that illustrate some aspect of the bigger picture fair game.

Here's an example. Recently a federal mandate went into affect that says that all TVs 25" and over must include a digital tuner, unless they're simply a monitor with no tuner at all. Note that this applies to manufacture, not sale, and does not cover existing stocks. However, it didn't take long for the "big box" ads to list every analog set (in that size range) in their circulars as a closeout. More importantly, we're starting to see ads for their replacements, the "digital SDTV".

And the digital SDTV worries me. I first heard about it last summer, and wasn't sure it had any future. But the more I think about it, the more I see the potential for it to become a big hit. The combination of a near-analog price and familar 4:3 aspect ratio could be just the thing for that segment of the public (which I'm guessing is pretty large) that would really rather have the TV experience they grew up with, or as close to that as can be had in the post-analog age. This effect will only increase next year when the mandate applies to even the smallest sets.

If these sets do become the replacement set of choice for all those analog sets out there, what does that do to plans for HD programming and new channels? How much of existing and planned investment was based on the idea that everyone would be watching HD in the not-too-distant future? Will those investments still be worth it if most people are watching a letterboxed (or cropped) image in 480i?
So what's happened in the year since? The story that's most directly related to transition is, of course, the FCC mandates that drove analog TVs out of the market. Soon after digital tuners became mandatory for 25"-and-above sets, digital took the lead in sales for the first time, a lead it has never relinquished. Now analog is truly on its last legs, as existing retailer stocks slowly run out. Early on, (as my initial post shows) I was highly concerned that the real beneficiary of these mandates would be the digital 4:3 SDTV, and early indications seemed to bear this out. However, it's pretty clear that my concerns were overblown, largely because HD prices have come down so dramatically in the last year. However, I suspect that the digital SDTV will do much better in the smaller sizes that have just recently been introduced. Speaking of the smaller sizes, how are the cheapest portables (a market segment where the additional cost could be much more noticeable) going to cope with the need to incorporate a digital tuner? This Engadget HD piece from December gives one answer.

Not just TVs are affected by the new mandates - every device with an analog tuner must now have a digital one as well. This TWICE article from January explores the ramifications for the recorder market.

Those HD price declines I mentioned above were thrown into high relief with the 2006 holiday shopping season, in which HDTV really seemed to emerge as a mainstream product, spurred on by huge Black Friday discounts But what was great for the consumer, has proven not as good as you'd think for the retailer, with discounts getting so large that they actually hurt retailers' bottom lines, with Circuit City being especially hard hit, causing much industry consternation. All this recent buying highlights a change in the overall TV marketplace, as flat panels now represent the majority of sets sold.

Looking ahead, a number of technologies have been struggling to emerge. One that's been having a hard time of it is the highly-touted SED (surface-conduction electron-emitter display). In August, TV Week speculated that market pressures could make it impossible to even launch it at competitive prices. Things were looking more hopeful with October announcements from Canon and Toshiba, but a patent lawsuit from one of Canon's other partners has raised some doubts about that. A brand new, coming-in-a-year, would-be plasma-killer technology called Laser TV was announced in October. And the ultra-high-res technologies that will eventually replace HDTV have begun to make their way out of the laboratories, so the fortunate among us will get to live this whole story out again sometime in the future (if we have any money left, that is). And while 1080P broadcasting may be a ways off, manufactures are beginning to show the equipment. On the other end of the spectrum, Texas Instruments is demoing 720P on mobile phones. (how could you tell the difference at that size)? But it may be "lights out" soon for our old friend the CRT tube).

But as I mentioned above, the dominant hardware story over the last year has been the NextGen DVD war. I first wrote about it on April 20th of last year, stressing the potential for causing even more public confusion about HD. While people might be a bit less confused a year later, I still think this is going to be a niche product for a long time. While VCRs thrived in the middle of a long-running format war, you have to remember that those machines were delivering completely new capabilities (time-shifting and watching of pre-recorded material) to customers' television experience. For all but hardcore videophiles NextGen DVD represents an incremental improvement, not worth all that much money, but more importantly not worth the risk of picking the wrong format and having all that money go to waste in the end. So far, reports of consumer reaction seem to be bearing that out.

Despite early attempts to come up with a unified format, none of these considerations were enough to prevent the two incompatible formats from going ahead. At first, it didn't look too good for Blu-ray, with early reports of problems with quality of pressings and a shortage of titles doing little to justify the notion of paying twice as much as you would for HD-DVD. Retailers weren't impressed,, either. As late as September, a prominent backer was declaring victory for HD-DVD, and as late as December a market survey reported heavy negativity towards Blu-ray.

But slowly, things began to swing in Blu-ray's favor. The incorporation of a Blu-ray player into PlayStation 3 was critical (Microsoft had an HD-DVD add-on to its Xbox 360, but has no plans to incorporate it), and even its limited holiday-season American allotment of 400,000 units made it the top NextGen player to that time. There was a lot of skepticism about how much gamers would use this capability, but early figures point to heavy usage. Then in February the numerical superiority of studios supporting Blu-ray finally began to be reflected in the number of titles available. As far as sales go, an NDP Group study revealed that if you combined stand-alone sales (from April to December) of the two formats with PS3s and HD-DVD add-on drives, Blu-ray was the definite sales leader. That also began to be reflected in disc sales, where Blu-ray discs outsold HD-DVDs by 2:1 in the first week of January, and nearly 3:1 in the second week. And later this year at least one hardware maker will be putting downward pressure on Blu-ray prices, eroding one of the few HD-DVD advantages. But it's still very early in this game, and as Ben Drawbaugh of Engadget HD points out, too early to leap to definite conclusions.

(NOTE: Due to time and space constraints, I am just scratching the surface of my NextGen coverage. For much more detail of how this story played out over the year, please check out my monthly recaps in the "Archives" links.)

As dominant as these stories were, it's important to remember that there were other kinds of hardware stories during the year. The most directly transition-related is the digital-to-analog converter box that so many analog owners will be needing. So far, RCA, Samsung and LG have gotten into the game.

TiVo caught up with HD with the Series 3, but at $800 many are wondering if this is going to entice enough people away from their cableco DVRs. (In addition, Diego's MOXI box will be taking on Series 3 on the retail front.) In September, TiVo's Jim Denney made their case in this TV Week interview. By March, TiVo was 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.

Lastly, things weren't looking too good for CableCard. But with cablecos under an FCC order to begin supplying Cablecard-compatible set top boxes soon, things will probably be looking up.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: HD Networks

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 has already made it even later than it usually is.)

Progress was slow in this area as well, conditioned by the slow bandwidth expansion detailed in my Program Providers recap. Here's what I had to say on 3/31/06:
Unless you're a simulcast of a popular non-HD channel, it is a proud and lonely thing to be an HD network in these early days. The general public doesn't know that much about you, even if you're affiliated with something they do know (e.g. PBS HD). You're lucky if you can get distribution, especially from cable.

Even lonelier must be those forward-looking TV programmer types working away at dozens and dozens of cable networks, dreaming of the day when they can go HD, and wondering just how long they'll have to wait. While satellites are ramping up new birds and new choices like FIOS (and eventually IPTV) promise bandwidth relief, most of us are cable watchers, and things are pretty dire in that sector. Systems everywhere seem stretched to the limit, and new channel rollouts are painfully slow (older Comcast systems still don't have TNT-HD, which Comcast rolled out in May '05). If you're a would-be HD programmer and you know Comcast may not be able to carry your channel for years, that's gotta effect your go/nogo calculations. No one wants to be the next Encore HD.

So the question facing the few brave souls willing to launch in these times is this; can they hang on long enough for cable to solve its bandwidth problems (especially if that doesn't happen until the end of analog)? Or can satellite/FIOS/IPTV carriage be enough?
New channel announcements were, in fact, painfully slow through most of the last year. Scripps Networks released HGTV-HD into limited distribution last April, followed by sister network Food Network HD on June 30th (they''ve since been picked up by a number of other providers, including Dish and just recently FiOS, with rumors of Comcast pickup in the near future).

The launch of A&E HD was even quieter. After an April announcement, there was no publicity (that I could see), and as far as I can tell the June preview never happened. I have to admit I wasn't exactly looking forward to it. But they did launch on September 1st (but with nothing on their website) into very limited distribution. Recently Comcast has started to add it.

In October a BBC executive revealed that they are considering a US HD channel. Nothing more about this yet. I also noted in January that South Park was conducting HD tests, but this apparently had nothing to do with any planned launch of Comedy Central in HD.

November brought the announcement of a new sports network from Comcast, one that combined content from Comcast's Versus and Golf Channel networks. The channel launched in January.

Things got so slow in December that I had more time to pay attention to events overseas, such as the planned launch of a kids' service called BabyHD, and the fact that MGM would choose to launch a HD movie channel in Poland before they did it here.

Then in February came the big announcement of DirecTV's plans to have 100 national channels by the end of the year. So how many yet-to-launch channels have actually been announced? Their initial press release mentions Bravo, Cartoon Network, CNN, FX, MTV, SciFi, Speed, TBS, History Channel, Weather Channel and USA. Not all of these have made announcements themselves (here's how the This Multichannel News article networks themselves reacted. But let's assume for the moment that they'll be coming sometime in the almost-near-future (CNN, Cartoon Network and TBS have all confirmed for September, and Weather Channel launches in the fall, although the effects of the tens of millions they are spending won;t show on-screen until early '08). The same month, NBCU announced Chiller, an SD/HD horror channel. March brought an American announcement for the MGM movie channel previously announced for Poland (up by the end of the year). 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. Still a whole lot of announcements to go to make that number!

Existing networks made their own news over the year. In June, INHD added the new "male-themed" MOJO block, gradually expanding until the network was renamed in its image, and in January they dropped INHD2. While it's not as dramatic as turning into a new network, there are changes in the works for Universal HD, including the scaling back of old upconverts from the NBC Universal library, and more movies and sports. In August, Discover HD Theatre announced a major programming boost. ESPN/ESPN2 (in a January '07 announcement), slated two popular series for HD conversion come this June, and followed that in February with the announcement that 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). Finally, National Geographic HD, MHD and Universal HD are among the existing networks that are available to far more viewers than at this time last year.

Some individual programs merit attention as well, and Discovery HD Theatre had a number of these. The Discovery Atlas series launched with great fanfare, but it's interesting to see how the series originally announced as Atlas HD and designed as a showcase piece for Discovery HD Theatre has expanded its focus to include the SD audience. I can testify to this from personal experience - during a late-summer trip to NYC to attend Wired NextFest, Discovery's booth revolved around Atlas, but there was not a single "Atlas HD" sign. Though not as successful as hoped, they're still moving forward with it. That's good news, as it's still a great HD showcase. Perhaps they'll do better with Planet Earth. The marketing for this one kicked off with a March sneak preview (information on the making of the seres is available here).They also gave us some extremely cool space station footage in November. Finally, they came up with an interesting way to stoke interest in Sunrise Earth - they took suggestions from viewers as to which locations to shoot next.

At least one other network made some noise about a featured HD program - November's debut of HDNet's November debut of Dan Rather Reports, whose marketing campaign included appearances on Colbert and at the HD World conference, plus a DVD line (with HD versions to follow sometime this year). Speaking of HDNet, The Dallas Morning News looks at HDNet's five-year anniversary here. And if you're a Comcast customer wondering why you don't have HDNet, read this.

Not as well publicized as the Discovery and HDNet programs above, but also of interest are PBS's plans to produce new episodes of their classic Matinee At The Bijou series, including HD versions. (If you read down to the comment section of the Engadget HD post, 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.

A number of people involved with HD networks sat down with interviewers over the course of the year to share their plans and insights. These included Clint Stinchcomb of Discovery HD Theatre, Eric Sherman of MHD, John Ford of National Geographic HD and Greg Moyer of Voom.

I'll close this recap with a little something I learned back in January. Given the negative reaction I and many other HD fans have to anything upconverted using TNT HD's "stretch-o-vision" process, it was surprising to see how much conscious thought went into the process, and that it even has a real name (FlexView). At least the linked article suggests that there will be less and less need for this as time goes on.

Next (and last) yearly recap - MANUFACTURERS. Then it's on to the later-than-ever "22 Months And Counting" (covering the events of 3/18 through 4/17).


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: Program Providers

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 has already made it even later than it usually is.)

Life won't be as different for cable companies, satellite operators and telcos after 2/17/09 as it will be for broadcasters, except for the recovery of analog bandwidth. They'll need every bit (so to speak) of it to accommodate the explosion of DTV offerings, both broadcast and cable. Here's how things looked to me on 3/27/06:
What does every HD fan want most? More channels, obviously. And every HD fans' biggest frustration is the slow speed at which these are being added and launched (see next post for more on the latter).

At the moment, satellite seems furthest along the way to being able to add a large number of channels, unencumbered by the legacy of analog and needing only to send up new birds. Hopefully when there is enough capacity we'll see more of those channels presented at full resolution!

Cable is where there will be a real bandwidth struggle (at least until analog is gone). Any real progress in the next few years will be conditioned by how quickly services like Extended Basic can follow the example of pay channels by migrating to digital-only. What percent of the customer base will have to have digital cable to make this feasible (i.e. to stave off a revolt)?

And how will the rise of services like Verizon's FIOS affect all this?
So, what's happened since? For the most part, HD channel adds continued at a slow pace, with the game-changing launch of two DirecTV satellites still looming in the future.

Let's start with the biggest provider, Comcast. Depending on the capacity of your local system, you could have seen ESPN2, MHD, UHD, NFL Network HD, National Geographic HD, A&E HD, and Versus/Golf HD added. You lost INHD2, but so did everyone else. You may have had some local adds as well - here in Boston NESN finally got its own channel (it used to pre-empt INHD2), which is probably the big reason that all their studio shows are now HD.

Overall, Comcast has done a decent job of keeping up (unless you're in a bandwidth-challenged area), with the obvious exceptions of HDNet, HGTV HD and Food Network HD. But like every cableco, the thought of how to compete with DirecTV once the new satellites go up (see the DirecTV section) has to be paramount. One way is to be good at something the satellite companies aren't very good at (yet), which may be why Comcast is focusing on expanding HD VOD. they started in September by announcing an increase to 100 hours of HD VOD, and have added some additional content since (most recently, Showtime, with ABC scheduled for this fall).

September was also the month Comcast COO Steve Burke predicted that they would offer 32-35 HD Channels, including locals, by the 3rd quarter of 2007. Now, Boston is one of the better areas for bandwidth and we only have 22 channels, so I suspect that prediction may come up a bit short, pending some really major events in the next few months. Burke also spoke about more DVR storage and TiVo service in the near future. The TiVo part does seem to be moving forward, as December brought word that they've been testing the software, and in January they demonstrated it at CES. Certainly an improvement over the current iGuide software!

But more extensive measures are clearly called for, even though Steve Burke recently tried to lower expectations by announcing that they won't try to match DirecTV channel-for-channel. Which is why they're testing switched video as a way of expanding HD capacity. My next monthly update will have details of an interesting Chicago experiment designed to clear some analog bandwidth, not all that unlike one they tried in a a small Ohio town last July.

While Comcast is making slow but steady progress, DirecTV is more in a state of limbo (as far as national HD channels go), preparing for two satellite launches that threaten to move it from the back to the front of the pack in terms of HD channel capacity. In the meantime, they've been rolling out local stations, and debuting their HD DVR, though users of the new DVR have been mourning the loss of the TiVo interface (including actress Alyson Hannigan, who did so quite publicly in a late-night talk show appearance). They've also been sued - twice! One suit was filed in September by Peter Cohen over the issue of "HD Lite" . I haven't heard anything more about this, but in January RĂ´mulo Pontual (Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of DirecTV) sat down with Ben Drawbaugh at Engadget HD to defend their HD PQ. The second was filed by Time Warner in response to their HD-related ads, causing them first to change that Jessica Simpson "I totally don't know what that is, but I want it" ad, only to have a federal judge order it (and another starring William Shatner) pulled off the air. And lest we forget, they're also being taken over by Liberty Media.

But none of these are the big story, of course. After much anticipation, that story got moving in January, with DirecTV's announcement that planned to carry 100 HD channels by the end of 2007. It's been several months, though, and most of the questions I raised in my January 30th post have yet to be answered. Even with the announcements to date, and the recent revelation that they are counting the Sunday Ticket feed as 13 channels, there are still dozens of announcements that will need to be made in the next few months if they're to have any chance of hitting that number. It's been noted that their original announcement listed channels that have yet to say anything about an HD launch, leading me to suspect that many of these channels will be rushed into production and remind us more of A&E HD than Discovery HD Theatre. And we still don't know just what effect the recent rocket explosion on the Sea Launch platform will have on the launch of one of the two satellites that DirectTV is supposed to be adding, though analyst comments suggest that the real impact may fall on their local HD strategy rather than their national plans. The next few months should be very interesting!

Contrast this with with the position of Dish Networks, currently the leader in national HD channels, but beset with a number of problems. they lost their distant network signals, and are currently embroiled in a patent infringement lawsuit instituted by TiVo, currently on appeal (this could lead to a loss of their DVR service, but hopefully will end up with a licensing deal bringing the TiVo interface to Dish customers). They're fighting to remain competitive with a no-upfront-fee DVR a simplified HD pricing structure and a roll-out of local channels. But it must be noted that I've seen nothing so far about what they will do to expand bandwidth to meet DirecTV's challenge later this year.

Time Warner has been thinking about how to counter this, as this interview with Melinda Witmer (Time Warner's senior vice president and chief programming officer) shows.

Meanwhile, alternatives to the traditional cable/satellite lineups were advancing through the year. I must have seen literally a dozen or so stories a month concerning Verizon FiOS's rollout in a 10-state area (here's a recent one). They are now available in about 400 communities (they've obtained over 700 franchises so far). Adding significantly to the speed of this rollout are the new state franchising laws they've been instrumental in getting passed (see my one year Government recap for details). Looking ahead, they've released some ambitious projections for the years ahead, as well as data revealing that over 60 percent of their customers lease HD boxes. Some additional insight into Verizon's thoughts on FiOS TV can be found in this October TV Week interview with Verizon's Terry Denson. Overall, their impact has been such that Multichannel News recently wrote about the effect they are having on the regulation of basic cable services. A pretty good first year!

Making somewhat less of a splash to date is AT&T's U-Verse IPTV service. An IP video service raises some interesting issues, such as how do you regulate it - like the Internet, or like cable? After a lot of testing (and some initial skepticism over their combined fiber/copper delivery system) the system got rolling in November, and in March reached the 15-market goal it had originally expected to reach in December, but had signed up only 7,000 customers at that point (I believe it's more like 20,000 now).

There was news from other providers as well. One actually died - I actually reported on the death of USDTV (an attempt to cobble together an inexpensive DTV service with bandwidth leased from various local stations) twice, once when they filed for bankruptcy , and eight months later, when they finally shut down. Cablevision recently released their own HD subscriber figures, which have doubled in the last year (similar to the results from Canada's Rogers Cable. For those of us who continually fret over not having every HD channel ever launched, perhaps a little perspective can be gained by pondering life as a customer of Insight Cable (ninth biggest in the nation, and now up to a whopping eight HD channels, or as a resident of Sheboygan, Wisconsin (whose local cableco waited until October) to finally add HD. And you don't have to be a big fish like AT&T to offer IPTV, as this story concerning the struggles of Canby Telecom to do just that demonstrates. 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, Skype and even Xbox (Xbox LIVE subscribers were recently offered a special HD version of a 2004 South Park episode that was produced in 16:9 HD).

Coming up in the next year - lots and lots of new channels, and hopefully you'll be on a system that has room for them. Which leads us to the next recap in this series - HD NETWORKS. It's coming soon, so keep checking the feed!