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 TVPredictions.com.

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.

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