Wednesday, October 31, 2007

16 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 16 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 19th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story, meaning that we have gone more than half the distance that remained when we started this blog in March of 2006. 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). Due to my recent trip to Japan, this will be a bit more compact and focused (and late) than usual. That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 9/18 and 10/17. As is usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE and

THE PUBLIC - As it gets nearer and nearer to The Day, I'm amazed that there continues to be a dearth of information relating to the public's knowledge of the overall transition. The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) is saying that more than 60% of the public is currently not aware of the transition (here's some recent remarks from NAB Joint Chair Jack Sander). If that's current information, it's even more disturbing than it sounds, since it' represents no change from 61% reported by the APTS (Association of Public Television Stations) back in January.

However, there is some new data on the related matter of HD. Best Buy did a poll recently that reported widespread confusion about HDTV, including the finding that 41% of HDTV owners understand "little to nothing at all" about HD (it's 89% among consumers at large).One of the main areas of confusion concerns the non-TV elements involved in the experience, from programming sources to cables and audio. Of those HDTV owners that do receive HD content, another study (from Neilsen) indicates that they are happy about the picture quality, but far less happy with the available programming options (of what's available, they picked Discovery HD Theatre (recently renamed HD Theatre to avoid confusion with the simulcast Discovery HD) as having the best PQ).

Last time, we reported that the NAB's plans for their transition-related public-education campaign were light on such details as whether the spots would air in prime time or mention cable as an option for keeping existing sets useful. This time, we know the answer to one of those questions - PSAs will definitely air in prime time. There will also be a 100-day countdown on local news programs. There's also news of upcoming campaigns from Public Television as well as a Spanish-language campaign from the Univision network

GOVERNMENT -With the situation as described above, it's no surprise that there's a continuing interest in having the government do more than they've committed to so far. At a 9/19 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Sen Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) made known his wish to see an education campaign targeted specifically at seniors,, and introduced a bill to that effect on October 2. Among others speaking (the first link will take you to all the testimony and a RealPlayer webcast) was Mark Goldstein of the GAO, who criticized the FCC's leadership on the issue. There was also a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, at which we leaned that chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) wants the FCC and NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) to create a federal task force to co-ordinate existing government resources and advise Congress as to any additional steps that might be needed. Also weighing in was Kyle McSlarrow of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), arguing for a small operator exemption to the new dual-must--carry rules (which require cable companies to convert digital broadcast signals to analog for at least three years after 2/17/09, unless the provider eliminates analog cable altogether). Not wanting to be left out of the fun, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) scheduled two hearings of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications & the Internet of the House Energy and Commerce Committee (and the first one is already in the books (during this hearing, Commerce chair John Dingell (D-Mich.) echoed some of Sen. Inouye's concerns).

In addition to those noted above, many other government, industry and public-advocacy figures had their say during these hearings. Prepared testimony and webcasts for these hearings are included with the main hearing links. Expect a lot more hearings of this sort as the clock ticks away.

As chairman of the FCC, Kevin Martin gets his fair share of criticism, but his opinions on the transition are inherently relevant, so enjoy this Broadcasting & Cable interview.

Much of the policy discussion concerning the transition deals with the fate of the over-the-air viewer, but this raises the question - how many broadcast-only homes now have digital reception equipment, thus eliminating or at least lessening their need for converter boxes and such? The FCC is trying to find out. They'll also be conducting tests to determine the possible effects of a new class of wireless devices (that are supposed to be able to share spectrum with local stations) on digital TV reception.

Our last government-related story concerns the converter-box program, and the first box to be certified by the FCC for the program.

BROADCASTING - While we do have a few new local HD newscast launches, the real news here is national - CBS News will be venturing into HD in 2008 with the CBS Evening News, as well as both political conventions. Look for the nightly newscast to be in HD by summer.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The big story here, of course, is DirecTVs explosion of channel offerings. If you're not in the habit of clicking on the links in these posts, this would be a good month to make an exception to that rule, as there were far too many channel adds to list individually here. The fun started on 9/26 with the first wave of 21 additions, followed by 11 more on 10/3, a further five on 10/10, and another pair on 10/17. At that time, DirecTV began claiming a total of over 70 HD channels. A few caveats are in order, 'tho. As this breakdown points out, the claimed total includes PPV, DNS (for Distant Network Signals, broadcast network feeds for people who can't get their actual local HD channels over-the-air) and RSNs (Regional Sports Networks, available to you only if you live in that region). Still, this current channel lineup from DirecTV's website shows 47 cable channels plus four broadcast networks (but no CW, for some reason). It also lists 14 "coming soon" additions, which is interesting since their advertising implies 30 new channels by the end of the year (from 70 to 100, using their method of channel counting). So presumably there are still some announcements in store.

So, how is the competition responding to all this? Echostar (AKA Dish Network), formerly the clear leader in channel count, added added four RSNs plus TBS-HD, and is now claiming that they have the most channels (using channel counting techniques similar to DirecTV's). They do have a point, as their national count is a competitive 48. You might, however, want to take note of the fact that this includes all the VOOM channels and that they in fact are missing most of the channels that debuted this month (though they did beat DirecTV to the four new Discovery Networks channels back in August).

And that's as close as any competitor has come so far. Capacity is far more limited in the non-satellite world. AT&T's U-Verse added History Channel and Lifetime Movie Network followed by TBS and CNN. Comcast expanded its rollout of some previously-added channels to some of its more bandwidth-challenged markets, as well as debuting TBS and CNN, with USA and History Channel on the near horizon. There were also statements from Comcast President Steve Burke that they will be more agressive in the fourth quarter, and recent moves to kick various channels to digital-only may be preparing for that. Comcast's cable competitors did what they could as well, with additions (or announcements of near-future additions) from Time Warner, Cox, Bright House and Charter. Surprisingly bringing up the rear was Verizon FiOS, who everyone thought would have no capacity issues. This has caused some unhappiness among FiOS subscribers who did not get TBS HD in time for the playoffs.

In other provider-related news, TiVo service from Comcast has supposedly begun in the New England area (although I've heard nothing about it so far), AT&T suffered a franchising setback in Connecticut, the recent FCC decisions on analog/digital carriage may have inadvertently messed up the existing carriage deal between large cable companies and public TV, and opinions differ on the issue of whether AT&T will buy Echostar..

HD NETWORKS - So we've got new networks - lots and lots. But how many, exactly, launched between 9/18 and 10/17? Looking at that DirecTV HD Channel chart again,and subtracting all the catch-up adds (all the channels that other providers had previously added during the long time DirecTV was stuck at nine channels) and West Coast feeds of various premium channels, I count 17 brand-new national channels (remember, History Channel and those new Discovery networks launched in early September). However I am including CNN HD in that count, since its earlier "launch" was without a provider (as far as I can tell).

However you count them, you probably want to know how the new and nearly-new channels fare as purveyors of HD. Thankfully, the folks at Engadget HD have provided this screenshot gallery, which enables me to make a few observations. First, given the high standard set by HD Theatre, it's a bit disappointing to see Discovery HD stretch their non-HD material. Next, the captions note that there's been no HD seen so far on FX, but that was written before the situation changed dramatically on 10/30 (as you can see from this discussion. So that makes two (FX and MGM) of all the new channels introduced that I'm really anxious to see for myself. In general, most of these channels seem to be placeholders for the real channels that will be coming once HD becomes the standard for all new production. A good example of this is the channel that has to have just broken the record for fastest deployment across providers and markets, TBS. Will there be anything to watch on that between now the playoffs in '08?So the thought to take away for all the cable watchers out there (like me) is this - you're not missing as much as you think you are, and by the time a lot of these channels get to your system you'll be rewarded with a better, less frustrating viewing experience.

Speaking of MGM, I may get my wish sooner than I expected, as they are expecting Comcast carriage.

Looking forward to '08, ESPNews is coming in March and Spike TV (whose HD channel will be launching next year) expects to be shooting nearly all of their original series in HD by the second quarter.

MANUFACTURERS - It's becoming a tradition in this section when it comes time to talk about the NextGen DVD format wars that the game-changing event occurs between the 17th and the time I get this update out. But since it was more of a hint than an announcement, we'll pass over for the moment the possibility of Warner dropping support for HD DVD, which would undo the format's recent Paramount-related gains and then some. But the last couple of months has been a more competitive game.

This hasn't stopped at least some Blu-ray backers from proclaiming imminent victory, however., including Disney chief Robert Iger and Kazuhiro Tsuga of Matsushita/Panasonic. More good news for Blu-ray came from the Home Theater Specialists of America (HTSA), as the group representing A/V installers announced exclusive Blu-ray support. On the other hand, we have research firm Forrester warning the Blu-ray camp of a possible upset victory by the forces of HD-DVD if Blu-ray cannot get more price-competitive (which they define as a $250-or-less player) this holiday season. And Blu-ray has had some problems matching HD-DVD's interactive features, as this story shows, although the debut of full-profile players will be changing that picture in the near future. But this all calls for a bit of perspective; in a new research study by The NDP Group, only 11 percent of HDTV owners had a strong interest in any variety of NextGen player. After all, a good upconvert DVD player (or even just a 480P progressive-scanner) can produce a pretty nice picture with the right SD content, so why go with something that could be abandoned in a year or two if you're not a dedicated videophile? My house hosts "Movie Night" several times a month, (using a regular old progressive-scan player) and the one thing I have never heard any of our guests say is "that picture looked soft". And for the most part, I'm not thinking about that either. The same principle could work the other way, 'tho; when we think about the exclusive allegiance of various studios to a particular format, it's almost as though we're forgetting that buyers of either format can just fill in the movies they're "missing" with standard DVDs, which might make the average HDTV owner more willing to take the plunge on a NextGen player once the price gets down low enough. Who knows, if their tastes are "niche" enough, they might even spring for a VMD player.

Moving on to non-NextGen hardware news, retailer Best Buy made official what I had already discovered in a store visit back in June - they are through with analog TV. And Sony will will finally begin selling the long-awaited OLEDs in December, but only an 11" model (for now), and starting in the Japanese market.

And that's it for now.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

17 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 17 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 18th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players (laid out in my first few posts) in this story, meaning that we have gone more than half the distance that remained when we started this blog in March of 2006. 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). Due to my recent trip to Japan, this will be a bit more compact and focused (and late) than usual. That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 8/18 and 9/17 (with one obvious exception). As usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE and

THE PUBLIC - We focus this time on two efforts to educate the public, one from broadcasters (the National Association of Broadcasters, or NAB) and the other from the cable industry (the National Cable & Telecommunication Association, or NCTA) . The NAB has announced their plans to send local stations four to six 30-second PSAs by the end of the year, but the plans are light on details (such as whether they'll air in prime time or will mention cable as option for keeping existing sets useful) so far. For now, they'd like to keep it vague, rejecting suggestions that the FCC impose specific time or message requirements. The NCTA already has its PSAs online, although at the time they were made their promises to "take care of all that transition stuff for us" was only true for digital-cable customers, as pointed out by the NAB (this has now changed; see GOVERNMENT below).

Do people pay more attention to high-def advertisements? I certainly do (although the novelty is certain to wear out eventually), and I'm not alone, as this survey shows.

GOVERNMENT - A major concern for transition-watchers has been the fate of analog-cable customers after 2/17/09, when analog broadcast signals (the heart of any analog cable package) are scheduled to go away. The FCC has now acted, but not without having to make some compromises. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's original plan was to require cable companies to convert digital broadcast transmissions to analog for analog customers (thus "dual carry") once analog transmissions were shut off, unless the company has converted (like Comcast in Chicago) to all-digital transmission. This plan simultaneously protected those customers from a rude awakening on The Day, while giving cable companies a powerful incentive to force the smaller inconvenience of a digital STB on those very same customers. However, threats of court action from the NCTA have resulted in a compromise whereby these provisions are effective for three years only (starting on 2/18/09), although the FCC does reserve the right to extend that. The FCC also backed off on measures designed to preserve picture quality by eliminating bandwidth-saving techniques such as compression and statistical multiplexing. Also, systems with less than 552 MHz may apply for waivers. I'm not sure how much this weakens the incentive to go all-digital; hopefully, the evolution of the marketplace will provide incentives of its own.

Another problem regarding the overall transition has surfaced; both DirecTV and Echostar (Dish Network) now say they may not have time to make the equipment changes necessary to capture all the local broadcast digital stations (unlike cable, they have to do this for the whole country, not just one area) by the transition date. A bit late in the day to be bringing this up, no? They seem to be asking for a delay in the transition date. I doubt they'll get it, but what else can be worked out? We'll be watching this one!

Cable, satellite, what have we forgotten? Oh yeah, over-the-air analog watchers, the group most likely to be negatively impacted by the transition. Anybody doing anything for them lately? One group that would like to try is the Save Our Sets Transition Coalition, which proposes a social compact whereby participating service providers offer to provide holders of converter-box coupons free analog broadcast TV service for seven years, in return for retransmission-fee concessions from broadcasters. Something of a long shot here, but who knows - something could come of it.

In news regarding other mandates, Comcast seems set to appeal the FCC's denial of their waiver request (exempting three of their STBs from the CableCARD mandate), and the FCC set a date (January 16, 2008) for the beginning of the auction for the spectrum reclaimed in the transition.

BROADCASTING - While there are still only few local newsrooms broadcasting HD news (a bit more than 50 at last count), they tend to clump together - that is to say, a prime incentive to convert your newsroom appears to be the fact that your local competition has already done so. That's why Cleveland had three as far back as January, and why Tampa now has two. While we're on the subject, you might be interested in Ben Drawbaugh's behind-the-scenes look at a local HD newscast.

Also making ground on the broadcast HD front is football, with CBS going all-HD with their coverage of SEC college games.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The biggest story this month continued to be the struggle by program providers to add capacity, but most of that story was about waiting. Everyone knew the game was about to change with the launch of the first wave of new DirecTV HD channels, but no one knew exactly when. In early September, it was learned that a separate HD-only tier (consisting of HDNet, HDNet Movies, Universal HD, MHD, MGM HD and Smithsonian HD) would be created, with a separate $4.99 charge for the six non-simulcast channels. As the 17th drew near, word got around that the 19th would be Launch Day, but no dice. It finally happened on the 26th. I'll have more to say about that next time, but for now you can see what viewers are saying over at AVS Forum.

Moves in response were surprisingly modest during this period. Dish Network added some HD PPV channels, while Cox in Virgina prepared for future moves by deploying switched video.

No further updates regarding legal issues between providers, but we do have one franchising story. A vote intended to fulfill an earlier promise to cable companies to extend them some of the fast-track treatment now given to telcos (such as the requirement that local government act on applications within 90 days) was cancelled without explanation by FCC Chairman Martin. Whether this is simply a timing issue or something more significant remains to be seen.

In other provider news, Comcast will be eventually using other platforms besides Motorola for its TiVo service (still to show up here in New England, which is supposed to get it first), Verizon is shooting a series of infomercials for its FiOS service and AT&T's U-Verse service has passed the 100K mark in subscribers.

HD NETWORKS - As you might expect, things have picked up on this front since last time. Two new channels couldn't wait for DirecTV, and launched without them, although in CNN HD's case, it was a question of "if a channel launches and no one is carrying it, does it actually exist?" (They have been making up for lost time lately, having just been added by Comcast.) Meanwhile, History Channel HD launched, but with an actual provider (Dish). Big Ten Network also launched, but without the Comcast deal they've been craving, though they've been made welcome on DirecTV, AT&T's U-Verse, and Dish. Of course, there was plenty of launch activity after the 17th, which we'll get into next time.

There were also a number of announcements of yet-to-debut channels. One of the main frustrations for HD enthusiasts is the paucity of real HD content on simulcast channels (i.e. channels that have the same programming as their SD counterpart). Well,you won't have to look for the HD content on CNBC HD+, since there won't be any HD, just additional graphics filling up the 16:9 frame, with the SD feed in a 4:3 window, and no current plans to move towards real HD. Oh well, at least it's not stretched. In contrast Fox Business Net will be in HD from its October 15 launch.

Also putting more HD into their simulcasts will be Travel Channel HD, whose schedule will be 95% high-def when it launches in the first quarter of next year, and Weather Channel HD, which will kick things off October 1 with two long form series in HD, followed by the debut of its HD studio sometime in June (in the long run, the goal is 90% HD).

In existing-channels news, things may be looking up in terms of real HD content at A&E, which is taking another run at original series drama, and Starz is doing likewise. Another problem being addressed is the extreme rerun-heaviness of MHD's schedule, which should get a bit of relief from this new concert series. And five HD networks are back on the air after a fire at their uplinker.

MANUFACTURERS - We start this time with the previously-reported Paramount/Dreamworks announcement that they would join the HD-DVD exclusives club, which already seems to turned back the tide of momentum stirred up by the Blockbuster Blu-ray-exclusive announcement two months ago. Regardless of the possible financial incentives connected to the deal, you can't deny the cost (in terms of the content you won't be seeing) of choosing one format over the other has just gotten much closer to even, and that points towards a protracted struggle. Still, it could have been even worse for Blu-ray - it could have been Warner. Though there've been reports that Warner is also considering an offer to go HD-DVD exclusive, it looks like the most prominent of the format-neutral studios is staying that way, at least for now. Still, it's interesting to note that their "Total HD" dual-format disc is on hold indefinitely.

There were some positive indications for Blu-ray, 'tho; stand-alone player sales seem to be going their way recently, although HD-DVD still ahead year-to-date. In other developments, the fourth quarter will see lower-priced ($999) combo players from LG (their second, and this one actually supports HD-DVD interactive features), as well as from Samsung. And niche/global market format HD VMD plans to launch in October. Speaking of global markets, China has announced CH-DVD, its own local variant of HD-DVD.

As always, there is still some hardware news not related to NextGen DVD. TiVo owners got some good news recently; if the FCC listens to a proposal from the NCTA, a device that will enable TiVo (Series 3 & HD) and similar devices to support switched video. LCD prices may be lower than CRTs of the same size by this holiday season. And the fruits of the CableCARD mandate are beginning to show up - here's an example of the boxes that will soon be competing with cable company STBs.

That's all for this monthly recap. I hope to be back to a normal schedule next time. See you then!