Thursday, June 28, 2007

20 Months And Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 20 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 15th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story. 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 5/18 and 6/17 (with one exception). As usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE and

THE PUBLIC - Another slow month here. Part of the process of educating the public about the transition comes from the media (including print) that they consume, so it's nice to see a fairly-thorough overview from the enormously influential and widely read Consumer Reports (thanks to Engadget HD for pointing me towards this).

GOVERNMENT - A number of government mandates figured in the news this last month. Influential House Democrats urged the FCC to mandate faster action on the transition-related educational campaigns currently scheduled to start next year, while the FCC itself is allowing some stations to go slow on converting their facilities to digital (I honestly had no idea that there were over 100 stations still lacking a digital signal). Something else that surprised me recently was the number of analog TVs still available from retailers, three months after the FCC banned their import and distribution. Perhaps retailers simply stocked up in bulk, but perhaps some manufacturers aren't playing by the new rules and will end up on the business end of an FCC fine of the sort that Maxent and Olevia now face. Perhaps Uniden will get some scrutiny as well, since they have announced that some of their new 1080p LCDS will have analog tuners only. (Perhaps the fact that they're a foreign company selling direct to the customer on their website leads them to believe that they're exempt from the "import" part of the ban?) Another, more recent FCC mandate involves the clear labeling of any remaining analog sets on the shelves (real or virtual), as they recently reminded retailers, but go back a few sentences and click on the link relating to remaining analogs to see that here too compliance has not been perfect.

Moving on to mandates yet to come, Comcast revealed that all subscribers (including analog subscribers who won't see any benefit) will share the pain of the costs to implement the July 1st ban on set-top boxes with integrated security (in effect making CableCARD mandatory). If you're as behind the curve in CableCARD knowledge as I am, you'll appreciate this Engadget HD piece, which passes on a lot of useful info gleaned from conversation with Motorola's Mark DiPietro. A critical upcoming event in the transition will be the auction that will determine the new owners of all that analog broadcast spectrum, and the NCTA (National Cable & Telecommunications Association) wants cable operators included, a stance which is winning support from a number of Senate Republicans.

These last few items aren't transition-related at all, but I'm guessing that a lot of you have at least some interest in other aspects of the government's involvement with your TV, and might like to know the opinions of Congresspeople on the a la carte issue (both pro and con). Definitely on the pro side is FCC Chairman Kevin Martin - after all, now that the federal appeals court has thrown a wrench in the FCC's campaign against fleeting expletives, what other tool will he have in his never-ending struggle to clean up TV?

BROADCASTING - The retransmission front was fairly quiet again this time, with a Cox-Sinclair deal being the only thing I came across. It seems Sinclair has now come to terms with all the major operators in their markets. Another fairly quiet front was local HD news. Although I'm sure there were at least a couple of new ones out there, they didn't seem to be making much noise. So I guess we've got room for a few pieces dealing with the experiences of existing operations, like this one concerning challenges involved with bringing HD out to the field, or this one on the importance of sets and lighting, or this one about a station in Seattle that got its feet wet in HD with an evening magazine show (similar to Boston's own WCVB and Chronicle).

Nothing new to report in other broadcast HD, either, in fact there have been a couple of backward steps. Last month's report of's plan to stream HD on their website needs to be qualified with a reference to the very low bitrate they'll be using. And this one is temporary, but for the summer both NBC and Fox will be delivering less prime-time HD. Something else that can negatively impact HD is multicasting - for those who are interested, here's a little something on how it works. Finally, you've probably heard about declining broadcast ratings - turns out that the Nielsen people have finally figured out that more and more people are simply shifting their viewing to DVRs.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The most compelling story in this section continues to be (and probably will continue to be for some time) the struggle to increase capacity to keep up with the floodtide of new HD channels being announced. DirecTV started this all off with their "100 channels" announcement a few months back, but while it looks like there's a delay in the launch of the first new DirecTV satellite, I'm not sure yet whether that will push back the September arrival of new channels. That's not stopping everyone else from trying to catch up, of course. Two months ago in this space I mentioned Comcast's Chicago experiment designed to radically chop away at the analog tier. Predictably, they've been getting complaints from analog customers, but to get the 228 megahertz this project will give them (enough to match DirecTV's capacity if they didn't want to share it with VOD or Internet), they seem willing to take the hit. Of course, a cheaper way to enhance public perception of your capacity is to play with words and numbers, which is what Comcast seems to be doing when it talks about having 400 HD choices this year, and 800 by the end of 2008. Sounds very impressive, but what you need to know here is that they are counting every single HD VOD selection as a "choice". It does, however, make a point - HD VOD capacity really is a part of overall HD capacity, which means that RGB Networks, who claim that their new video-processing box can allow for 50 % more VOD streams in the same spectrum should not lack for customers if these claims prove true.

Putting this and the Chicago experiment aside for a moment, we can see some more modest attempts by Comcast to clear bandwidth, as systems in Colorado and Mobile, Alabama make a few channels digital-only, possibly to help along the national rollout of A&E, HGTV and Food Network HD (the latter two having appeared in Boston first). While we don't yet how long it will take Comcast to apply its more-ambitious strategies outside the Chicago area, Time Warner is more forthcoming, having made it known that they intend to deploy switched video in 50% of their markets this year. By sending only the channels actually being watched instead of trying to force every channel down the same pipe at once, switched video's backers claim "virtually unlimited" HD capacity. But while we're waiting to see which plans come to fruition, here 's a little summary the current reality.

Legal matters continued to attract attention. On the heels of recent lawsuits involving Time warner and DirecTV comes this new one filed by DirecTV against Comcast challenging claims (based on a Magid Associates survey) that satellite customers prefer Comcast's picture. And Cablevision has filed an appeal of the decision that ruled against its plans for a network DVR (you remember, the decision that said it's OK for customers to store programs on their home DVRs, but if the same programs are stored for the same customers on the network it suddenly becomes theft), and has gained the support of 11 industry and public-interest groups.

Statewide franchising moved forward as well, with bills in signed into law by Gov. Crist of Florida and Gov. Culver of Iowa. Meanwhile, Nevada's bill headed to the governor's desk. Not all franchise-reform legislation is cut from the same cloth, as it appears that Connecticut's recently-passed law actually subjects AT&T's U-verse service to regulations they've avoided so far. Not all franchise-reform legislation passes, either - Tennessee's bill has been withdrawn after opposition by local officials and cable companies.

Moving on to news specific to individual providers, DirecTV continues to fill in the blanks of their 100-channel future lineup, confirming carriage for those new channels from Discovery and Starz that I mentioned last time, as well as announcing their intent to carry 11 of the 26 HD feeds HBO/Cinemax will be launching by the second quarter of 2008 (see HD NETWORKS below). Here's a list of what had been firmed up before the HBO announcement. Others adding or moving channels include Cablevision (adding Versus/Golf HD) and Time Warner (shrinking their HD tier by moving ESPN's HD channels to un-tiered digital cable). Comcast will be launching TiVo service in Boston this August (so hopefully I'll be able to report on it not too long thereafter). Dish is rolling out a new HD receiver, while Verizon FiOS will be rolling out a slick new program guide. In contrast, a number of key enhancements to U-verse could be delayed up to a year.

HD NETWORKS - While last month (4/18-5/17) was the month the floodgates finally opened in terms of new HD channel announcements, this month was actually fairly quiet until June 12th. Until then, the only thing I'd found was an announcement for an HD version of Si TV, an English-language network geared to the Latino audience. Then came June 12th, and the announcement of 26 HBO HD feeds, up from the current four (East/West versions of the main HBO and Cinemax channels). This change means that every channel in the HBO/Cinemax family (both East and West feeds) gets its own HD counterpart. How long it will take them to acquire as much "True HD" content as the main channels remains to be seen. One question; if DirecTV (the provider with the most bandwidth in the short run) is only going to carry 11 of these, who will carry the rest?

Things were even quieter regarding existing HD networks, but I do have an item concerning HDNet (which is receiving some broadcast exposure by selling the first season of its comedy improv series Sports Action Team to 10 NBC-owned stations). I also have something regarding Discovery HD Theatre - thanks to Engadget HD for pointing me to this 1080eyes blog entry by guest blogger Clint Stinchcomb of DHT, wherein he assures us that it will continue to be their HD crown jewel, no matter how many other Discovery-affiliated channels go HD. And both HDNet and DHT factor into this Cableworld report on news and documentary production.

MANUFACTURERS - When I finished my link-collecting and turned in on the night of June 17th, I was pretty sure how the NextGen DVD story for this recap was going to read. It was going to focus on renewed competitiveness between the formats, with recent Toshiba rebate promotions helping push HD DVD ahead of Blu-ray in terms of dedicated players sold (of course, this still doesn't factor in all those PS3s). I was also going to point out that the gap in number of available titles was fairly stable (surprising, given Blu-ray's advantage in studio support), and that Universal (the only HD-DVD exclusive studio) was sticking to its guns. Not to mention that all was not perfect in Blu-rayville, with Sony being sued for Blu-ray-related patent infringement. That doesn't mean I was going to ignore the other side of the equation, of course. I certainly would not have forgotten to mention that in the midst of its success Toshiba was still cutting future sales projections by 44 percent, or that Sony had considerably narrowed the price gap with its $499 BDP-S300 model. I'd also planned to mention that Onkyo was reconsidering plans to bring out its own HD DVD player, and that Disney was also sticking to its guns and maintaining its Blu-ray-only commitment. Overall though, it still seemed like a horserace at that point.

Then came the morning of June 18th, with my Boston Globe informing me of Blockbuster's big decision to focus solely on Blu-ray as it expands its pilot NextGen operation from 250 stores to 1,700, meaning that the additional 1,450 stores will be Blu-ray only. Which makes just about everything else in the prior month jseem ust a bit insignificant. They are basing their decision on what consumers are choosing (Blu-ray more than 70 percent of the time), and even though they are leaving the door open a bit by keeping both formats online and at the original 250 stores (presumably so they can tell if there's a shift in the winds), this is big, bad news for HD DVD. There's also an excellent chance this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy once word gets out to consumers. The next few weeks will certainly have some follow-on developments (I'm seeing signs of that already), so be sure to check back next time.

In the retail sector, the ripples from last year's holiday season price-slashing just keep expanding and expanding. CompUSA is exiting the mass consumer market to focus on business as well as "technology enthusiasts" and "educated professionals" (i.e. people who don't worry as much about what things cost), while Tweeter has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and could be sold soon. None of which is going to stop manufacturers like Phillps from making plans for Black Friday 2007 (although they do seem to want to go a bit lighter on the slashing this time).

In other hardware news, you might have noticed last time that when mentioning a piece of good news for the SED TV display technology I said that events after 5/17 had made that victory fairly meaningless. What I was referring to was the decision by SED's backers to delay it again, and just as importantly there are serious doubts as to whether costs can be brought down to a competitive level. Doesn't look good! Another promising technology (from Samsung) combines LCD screens with LED backlighting, with promises of greatly improved contrast ratio. Looking further (much further) down the road, HD's would-be eventual replacement (now known as Super Hi-Vision) continues to advance with a new image sensor that can record an entire 7,680 x 4,320 frame. A classic theme of innovation is miniaturization, on display this month in a teeny-weeny ATSC tuner. And TiVo is finally making a profit.

And that's all I have at this moment. As promised, I managed to get this in earlier than last time, and given the amount of material in these recaps, 11 days after the 17th is about as timely as this particular spare-time activity is likely to get. See you next time!


Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Sunday Supplements (Tuner Mandate, Part 4)

This last Sunday was June 10th, more than three months 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). It's also two months since I last reported on the slow death of analog TVs at the retail counter (stores are allowed to sell their existing stock) - those yearly recaps threw me further off schedule than I could have anticipated. When I started doing research for this post, I assumed that this would really be the last one - surely the passage of two months had reduced stocks to almost nothing. Well, read on.

Like the last three 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 I also used an off day to pay visits to the three chains I've been tracking. Note - analog figures include sets marketed as "HD Ready", capable of displaying HD but only containing a NTSC tuner.

BEST BUY - By the previous installment of this series, it had become clear that Best Buy had taken the lead both in getting old analogs out and small digital sets in. So it wasn't surprising that there were no analog sets featured in their circulars, at least from April 22 onward (I'm missing the circular for April 15th). Two months ago, had 17 analog models (down from 22 two weeks before that). Now those are all gone (they also have two portable digital models from house brand Insignia). So it wasn't too surprising that the Best Buy in Watertown, MA had no analog sets either. Even the smallest, cheapest set in the store (a $99 13-incher from Dynex) was a fully-compliant digital SDTV with ATSC tuner built in.

CIRCUIT CITY - A very different story here. Their circulars still feature the occasional analog set from Symphonic (although not this last week). The real story is told over at, which has gone from 22 analog models on 4/11 to 24 now, believe it or not. In their defense, there are more sets altogether, and there are actually 22 sets with integrated ATSC tuners in the 24"-and-under range that I've been tracking - but that's still a bit less than half! Things were somewhat better in the Framingham, MA store, with three sets out of 15 (in that size range) sporting only NTSC tuners. However, these sets did not have the recently-mandated FCC Consumer Alert sticker.

TARGET - The percentage of ATSC tuners is even lower at Target. Two months ago, had 49 20" or under sets, of which 48 had only a NTSC tuner, and three sets in the 21"-to-24" range, only one of which was NTSC-only. Now there are 60 20" or under sets, 38 of which are NTSC-only. Things were better in the 21"-to-24" range, with only one NTSC-only set of the five listed. So that's 39 of 65 24"-and-under sets that are NTSC-only - a clear majority, three months after their manufacture was banned. This very week they had an ad for a Trutech (I believe that's their store brand) set with only a NTSC tuner. The actual (Watertown, MA) store had even less ATSC - of the 14 sets in that size range, there was one HD set and one digital SDTV. Of the 12 NTSC-only sets (most of which were "HD-ready" widescreens), eight had the required Consumer Alert messages, but four did not. Interesting results for a chain whose public image is "we're hipper than the average department store".

AMAZON.COM - As before, I've restricted myself to tracking the portables here. Two months ago there were 32 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 five were radios with TV tuners for audio reception. Also, of these 32, 28 were available new, and five were only available on a used/refurbished basis. Now they are down to 27 (four are used/refurbished, and three are radios with TV audio tuners). Just one ATSC tuner on offer in this section (up from none before). Again, 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.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I really expected the story to be over at this point. Apparently the last analog sets were stocked in depth by some retailers for customers who want to save a few bucks today and aren't looking to the future yet. I'll check in on this again in another couple of months.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Concerning Dead Links just changed the naming format for their links, and apparently have extended this to all of their old links as well, as those no longer work. Instead of redirecting a story to its newly-named version, one is directed to the main site (at least you don't get a "404"). They have been one of my major sources of stories, so all of my monthly and yearly recaps have just become somewhat less useful as a historical record. I will use their site to find and re-link stories as time allows, but regular readers know about my ongoing struggle to get the monthly recaps out in something like a timely fashion, and will hopefully understand when I say that this will take some time (anything other than recent stories have to be accessed by a search function, so I'm not even sure their archives go back as far as this blog).

Sunday, June 03, 2007

21 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 21 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 14th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story. 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 4/18 and 5/17. As usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, and TWICE.

THE PUBLIC - Not a whole lot of action on this front this time, but I did find a few items of interest. One of the constituencies that people tend to worry about in term of their DTV awareness is seniors, so it's interesting that Retirement Living TV co-sponsored a panel (with the National Cable Television Association) on seniors and the transition at the NCTA's recent convention. This writeup is quite brief, but does contain links to three short clips. Judging from those clips, this appears to be an entry-level discussion aimed at the channel's audience of seniors rather than at the industry people attending the convention, so presumably RLTV taped this for later broadcast (else why have a discussion your audience isn't going to hear?).

The group that appears to positioning itself to do much of the heavy lifting in public education is the previously-discussed DTV Transition Coalition, and their list of participating organizations appears to be expanding outward from their original base in the broadcast, cable and consumer electronics sectors to include local governments, community groups et al. That's good news, but it may still be awhile before we see any concrete effects (The National Association of Broadcaster's massive PSA campaign isn't scheduled to kick off until spring '08). They can't start too soon, if the figures in the latest survey from Leichtman Research Group can be believed (23 percent of sets, which works out to about 70 million, are not currently hooked up to cable or satellite service).

GOVERNMENT - he number I just quoted above is the kind of thing that makes some people wonder whether we can leave things entirely in the hands of the private sector. People like FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who's advocating a public/private partnership approach, and faster action than that embodied by the above-mentioned NAB schedule. Or Representative Rick Boucher, who would like more funding for the converter-box coupon program. He would also like Americans to be better-informed of the shortcomings of any analog sets that might still be out there on retailers' sheves, so he was probably pleased to hear of the new FCC order to post warning labels on those sets (from what I've seen, this also applies to on-line operations).

Another FCC proposal (expanding cable's "must-carry" obligations to include both digital and analog versions of local stations after those stations stop analog broadcasting on 2/17/09) reached the "notice of proposed rulemaking" stage April 25th over the objections of both Comcast and the National Cable Television Association, whose president Kyle McSlarrow branded it a "completely unnecessary government intrusion into the marketplace". In later speeches, McSlarrow continued the theme, suggesting that government intervention in the video business is unnecessary due to the highly competitive nature of the business, and even endorsing a proposal to radically reduce the FCC's oversight authority . Also among the things he considers unnecessary is FCC Chairman Martin's support of mandated "a la carte" , and in this McSlarrow recently got some support from House leaders.

Also going at it lately are the NAB and the American Cable Association (mostly representing smaller cable outfits) over the ACA's plans to lobby members of Congress regarding retransmission and downconverting.

One last piece of FCC news; they have granted waivers to Charter and two smaller operators exempting them (for the time being) from the July 1st ban on set-top boxes with integrated security features.

BROADCASTING - After a quiet month last time, there was more retransmission-related news, with the release of financial results showing that the issue has hurt Mediacom (which had a memorable battle with Sinclair Broadcasting over carriage of their stations), while helping broadcaster Hearst-Argyle. Now Spanish-language broadcaster Univision wants into the act, even though they lack the HD signals that were largely responsible for starting this fight in the first place. All of which makes Motorola's plan to demo a cable box with built in ATSC tuner that much more significant (this is a first implementation of the Cable Television Laboratories specification that was discussed in March).

The slow expansion of HD local news continues. A count taken on 4/27 showed 45 stations broadcasting their local news in HD, and on May 14th the Boston area joined that list for the first time as HD leader WCVB (their Chronicle newsmagazine show had its first HD broadcast in 1999) debuted their HD newscast. We don't know when other local stations will follow suit, but the local CBS affiliate is in the process of implementing some of the necessary technology, so I'm guessing that they will be next.

HD was also spreading in other areas. CBS announced that it will be doubling its HD football schedule, ABC countered by presenting the Indy 500 in HD for the first time (with ESPN handling the cable end) and also unveiled plans to stream HD on (but see my next recap for some qualifiers that surfaced after 5/17). After some earlier tests, WWE has decided to go forward HD for their three weekly shows sometime next year. And a new delivery service for syndication promises to make HD far more commonplace in that market. It's even spreading into the ratings - Nielsen will start tracking HD viewership soon.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - Up until now, I've dealing with the news in this section one provider at a time, but there are some stories that concern more than one provider, and this time I'm leading off with those. With the floodgates opening on new-channel announcements to fill up that space promised by recent DirecTV announcements (see the HD NETWORKS section for details on new channels announced during the period), the race to expand HD capacity just got a lot more important. We know that DirecTV is approaching launch date for the first of their two new satellites. Recently Echostar (Dish Network) responded with the announcement of their own new satellites going up by year's end. And while I haven't read anything specific about Verizon FiOS' channel capacity, let's assume for the moment that a fiber-optic network will find a way to stay competitive. Where does that leave cable? This Multichannel News overview looks into the methods(including switched digital video) that various operators are considering. One of the more technically simpler ways is to speed the customer transition to digital and start cutting back on analog, and now Time Warner has cleared the decks for 100 HD channels in their Staten Island system. The article doesn't say exactly how they managed it - the claim was contained in court papers relating to their lawsuit against DirecTV.

Which brings us to our next story. With all the resources the providers are throwing into capacity expansion, they're bound to attach high importance to how all this is perceived by the public, so it's not surprising that they're willing to go to court over the matter. First there was the Time Warner suit over DirecTVs claims of superior picture quality, and more recently Time Warner went back to the well over DirecTVs claims to "soon" have three times the channel capacity (which is how their Staten Island experiment came to light). While they were successful in getting DirecTV to modify their PQ claims, they weren't so lucky in this latest attempt, but plan to push on. Another lawsuit (from DirecTV over these Comcast PQ claims was filed after the 17th, so more on that next time.

The various providers still managed to make news by themselves, of course. DirecTV's latest financial report showed HD's growing positive impact on their profit picture (and the associated investor call revealed that they still planned to get to 100 channels by year's end, at no additional cost to subscribers). So I have to wonder why their new portable receiver/display, at $1499 a pop, has no HD capability. HD has been a big factor in Comcast's results as well, although Steve Burke is still saying they don't need to be competitive in the number of HD channels they carry (another results story indicates that they'll be taking a go-slow approach towards replicating their above-mentioned Chicago experiment countrywide). Burke also recently proposed charging $30-60 to show HD VOD movies the same day they're released in theatres, an idea which did not go over well with theatre owners. Comcast is also expanding their partnership with Circuit City in opening a second Connect store to sell Comcast services along with the hardware needed to use them. Two more providers to credit HD for good numbers were Dish, who plan to add roughly six more HD channels this year, and Cablevision, whose HD subs have risen 85 percent in the last year.

Also adding subs at a high rate was Verizon FiOS, as might be expected from a service expanding into so many new areas (up to 769 TV franchises by the end of the first quarter!). They also had good news to celebrate on the statewide-franchise front, as bills in Florida, Iowa and Ohio moved forward. The other telco in the TV market (AT&T) expects to raise capital spending on its U-Verse IPTV service.

As a brief note of comparison to all the above activity, here's how things are going in Russia.

HD NETWORKS - As I noted above, this (4/18-5/17) was the month the floodgates finally opened in terms of new HD channel announcements. Significantly, three existing HD networks will expand the number of channels offered. Discovery, which has given us the widely-praised Discovery HD Theatre, will be launching six new channels in the next year (four in '07, two more in the first quarter of '08). They've named the four fall '07 launches (Animal Planet, TLC, Science Channel and the flagship Discovery Channel), but not the other two. With HD becoming the everyday standard, how long will Discovery HD Theatre stick around? At least until everyone has the bandwidth to add all those other channels, I would hope! Also going multi-channel is Starz Entetainment, who will be adding three channels (Starz Comedy, Strarz Edge and Starz Kids and Family). I remember one of the first things I read when I started following HD-related news was that Starz's then-CEO John Sie (who retired in '04) was a noted HD skeptic who tried to introduce a Widescreen SD version of Starz, thinking that was all any normal viewer would need. Times do change! Lastly, A&E Networks (which is just starting to get widespread carriage for its own HD channel) is bringing out History Channel HD in September. There were a couple of of new-to-HD entrants as well. Rural residents will get their own special-interest HD channel when RFD-HD launches in October. And a brand-new college sports channel (Big Ten Network) will be HD from the start this August.

More was learned about some already-announced launches. Weather Channel recently broke ground on their new HD studio and will be investing $50 million in the project, due for completion in 2008 (until then, Weather Channel HD will rely mostly on upconverted content). One of my pet peeves is the marked difference is the marked quality difference between studio and location shots in HD news, so I was happy to hear that CNN HD is planning to do HD field reports as well as the usual studio shots.

And while these two items don't qualify as launches, it's clear that both arts network Ovation and shopping network QVC are looking to the future in their production decisions.

While not as attention-grabbing, existing HD channels still managed to make some news. We already knew that Discovery's Planet Earth was a big hit, but the ratings show just how really huge it was, and Discovery HD Theatre showings were a major contributor. Not surprising, then, that they plan to do it again. They are also doing a test to help advertisers determine the effectiveness of HD ads versus those done in SD. Also working with advertisers to increase the number of HD ads is MOJO (the former INHD). ESPN will be continuing their series of HD conversions with World Series of Poker. Mark Cuban wants to know your ideas for new HD Net programming. And for those of us who've been frustrated at the lack of HD content on A&E HD, take note - their return to original scripted programming, while not explicitly stated, gives us some hope on that score.

MANUFACTURERS - As usual, we begin with the continuing NextGen DVD saga. Price cuts were big news this month, on each side of the aisle. Panasonic countered last month's Toshiba price cuts by dropping the price of its stand-alone player by more than half over its predecessor, to $599, and bundled five films into the deal as well. Toshiba hit back with a $100 rebate (bringing the price of their HD-DVD player temporarily down to $299, a price I'd be tempted by if I had some assurance that the format would stick around and receive greater studio support) and an ad campaign starring Michael Imperioli. On the disc sales front, late April saw announcements that Blu-ray had sold its millionth disc, and that HD-DVD had come pretty close. Of course, these are cumulative figures and HD-DVD did have something of a head start. Figures from early May showed that Blu-ray is still a solid leader in current sales, despite an organized one-day "buy-in" by HD-DVD fans. They've also maintained their lead in available titles, although that lead doesn't seem to be growing very quickly. All in all, Sony's confidence is high, as measured by this recent investment of $75.8 million to retool a plant for Blu-ray disc production. Still, at the end of the day it would have been better if this had all been settled at the beginning, as pointed out by the former president of Warner Home Video (one of the few studios trying to serve both camps). I know I'd be a lot closer to making a purchase if that were the case (I used to be a chronic early adopter, but those were different times, budgetwise).

Moving on to non-NextGen news, the one product most closely tied to the transition (other than digital sets themselves) is the converter box, and the slow progress in getting these to market has NAB President David Rehr worried about the consequences if these boxes aren't widely available on Jan 1st, 2008 (the day the coupon program is supposed to kick off). Perhaps manufacturers are waiting to include that snazzy new sixth-generation ATSC chipset LG just introduced. Another product that can certainly help smooth the transition, but which has been somewhat scarce, is the portable digital TV, so it's nice to see this announcement from Best Buy's Insignia label. A fraud case against SED backer Canon was dismissed, but events after 5/17 may have made that victory fairly meaningless. We close with this note - DVR maker Diego announced price cuts and storage enhancements. With the approaching roll-out of TiVo on Comcast DVRs, it's not a moment too soon.

And that's all I have at this moment. In 14 days it's time to start working on my report for the period from 5/18-6/17. As promised, I managed to be a bit less late than last time, and I'll make a similar promise right now for next time.