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 TVPredictions.com.
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 abc.com'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!