Sunday, March 30, 2008

11 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 11 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is currently scheduled to cease. This is the 24rd 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 just over two-thirds of the distance that remained when I 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). That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 2/18 and 3/17. As is usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICEand

THE PUBLIC - Up until a month ago, I was thinking that the one-year mark would probably be the signal for the media to kick things into high gear in regards to public-education campaigns. I seem to have been a bit premature there. As I mentioned last time, I only saw one story in my local paper on Feb 17th, and nothing since, and nothing on the news shows I've been watching (and I haven't seen any more of those DTV Answers spots lately). Under the existing FCC plan, escalating alerts are supposed to kick in April 1st (two spots and two text crawls on the screen every six hours) and October 1st (three spots and three crawls). However, the FCC has now given stations more flexibility in allocating those spots, allowing them to put them in less-valuable and therefore less-watched timeslots, and skip altogether the most popular programs (where there would be the best chance of the message getting through). Brilliant! Meanwhile, there are new Neilsen findings that place the number of U.S. homes that are not ready for the switch at 13 million (with another six million homes having a secondary TV set that will be affected).

Not everyone is worried about the overall situation, 'tho. One person not particularly concerned is Gary Shapiro of the CEA, who is expecting those who are cut off on The Day to calmly go about doing whatever they have to do to get their service back. Well, we can hope. Is this a case of dangerous complacency that seriously underestimates the potential for chaos, or a rare example of common sense?

Just because I'm not seeing them doesn't mean that there aren't efforts underway, of course. PBS's PSAs hit the air in March, using two of the "This Old House" team to help explain things. I just saw one for the first time on Sunday, March 23rd, possiby because I'm watching less PBS these days, and I'll go further into the reasons why in the BROADCASTING section below.

As far as HD awareness goes, here's something to think about. I've written a number of times about the fact that only about half of HDTV owners are watching actual HD programming. Well, it could be worse, as a new report reveals that only 5% of European HDTV owners are watching (two German HD channels recently shut down for lack of interest).

GOVERNMENT - A couple of months ago I mentioned the idea of testing out the transition in certain areas before the overall switchover, but that it had not gotten the support of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. It seems from this article that he's coming around on it, but the plan as described here seems to rely on having individual households volunteer to take part. Somehow it just doesn't seem to me that such households are where the potential problems lie.

Meanwhile, the main transition-related government effort (the converter-box coupon program) continued to roll along. Coupons are being issued and you can see what they look like here. The coupons must be redeemed within 90 days, which is bad news for those who've received them and were planning to use them to buy EchoStar's $39.99 (free after applying the coupon) box, as that box has been delayed until June or July. As to how things are going for the program in general, it may be worth noting (you decide how much to read into this, if anything) that the official in charge is leaving for the second time since November..

Last time I wrote about the objections cable channels have to the FCC mandate for post-transition dual carriage (mandating that cable companies ease the transition for analog cable customers by continuing to carry an analog version of must-carry broadcast stations unless the provider goes all-digital and eliminates analog cable service completely). The main objection is in regards to the bandwidth limitations this would cause, especially with smaller operators. Now we are hearing from those smaller operators, as the organization that represents them (the American Cable Association) is asking for a blanket exemption for systems that serve no more than 5,000 customers, or who have less than 522 MHz of capacity. Interestingly, they are asking to transmit those stations in analog-only, rather than digital-only (which would seem more efficient), although admittedly that does address the needs of their analog customers. As mentioned before, the major carriers (as represented by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association) are strongly in support of their smaller siblings. For more on the challenges facing smaller providers, see the PROGRAM PROVIDERS section below.

In less directly transition-related news, Chairman Martin continued to be embroiled in various disputes, including those over the a la carte issue, ownership caps, satellite carriage of local stations and other matters. All this and a congressional probe, too!

Tune in next time for some results from the ongoing auction of the old broadcast analog spectrum.

BROADCASTING -Another fairly slow news month in this area. There was the usual handful of new local HD newscasts, bringing the total up to around 80 - here's an example. I keep expecting this trickle to turn into a flood at some point, but there are still some impediments to rapid conversion, such as cost. The WWE HD story took a twist, as their Friday night Smackdown show will be moving to MyNetworkTV - fans should hope that the HD signals can be seen (the Boston MNTV affiliate does not have its HD station in the Comcast HD lineup, and its OTA signal is said to be weak).

There will be some new HD coming in the area of sports . There'll be no more "Fox Widescreen" in baseball, their 2008 MLB games will be all-HD. And the last two teams not to have any of their local games broadcast in HD have joined the club.

But not everything is going in that direction. I mentioned last time that the PBS HD Channel would be going away sometime in the fall. Here in Boston, we're not waiting that long and the HD signal for WGBH has now changed to a simulcast of their regular analog schedule. The upside is that Bostonians are finally able to see the HD version of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (which has not yet been added to the PBS HD Channel schedule). The downside is that is that I didn't see one single other show in HD for several weeks (until a couple of days ago, when an HD Antiques Roadshow came on). Part of this may be because of pledge month (something I've been spared the last few years as a PBS HD Channel viewer) and part because of the station supposedly lacks the ability to record HD for later playback. Supposedly this will be very different by the fall, but for the moment it's a huge loss in the amount of quality HD programming available. For what it's worth, the NewsHour is way ahead of the NBC Nightly News in the amount of non-studio HD footage. Another item of concern to HD fans - a recent survey revealed that 55 percent of local broadcasters have plans to multicast.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - As it has been since DirecTV put up that satellite last fall, the big story here continues to be everyone else's attempts to stay competitive with DirecTV's HD offerings. Various providers continued to add large chunks of channels (where adding two or three would have been big news not long ago) to various areas - here's a few examples. But beyond today's channel adds (which generally seem to be raising the channel counts from the 20s to the 30s) lies the struggle to revamp systems for the day when many more channels than that will be required to stay competitive.

How to go about it? If you're another satellite company (like Dish), you can follow DirecTV's playbook and put up a new bird. That is in fact what they did, but things didn't go so well and this is expected to cause delays in the implementation of their "100 Channels, 100 Markets" strategy. For cable, there are a number of options short of an expensive system rebuild. One way is to adopt SDV (that's short for Switched Digital Video, a technology that sends only requested channels down the wire, instead of the current standard, which is to send you every channel, even if you can only watch one and record a couple of others), as Mediacom is doing, but there's a catch - CableCARD users can't currently see these channels (as this post concerning Time Warner's conversion of three channels to SDV points out). Or you can go the "all (or almost all) digital" route and pare analog channels down to the minimum required by the FCC after the transition. This may be what Comcast has in mind when they say they have the capacity for 150 channels, at least if you give credence to this "friend of an insider" post in the Comcast Boston thread over at AVS Forum. Another indicator of their intention to go in that direction is their reported interest in a cheap DTA (Digital Terminal Adapter) that will take the form of a small dongle rather than the set-top box that has often been cited as one of the reasons that analog cable customers resist going digital. Three other companies recently detailed their reasons for going all-digital during a panel on the subject at the National Cable Television Cooperative’s Winter Educational Conference. It's also possible to achieve more modest gains by using the improved bandwidth management of 256 QAM as well as the improved compression of MPEG4, as Bresnan Communications will be doing. Not modest at all is Cox's goal of 80 channels by year's end, but I haven't been able to find a source that tells me which of these methods they plan to use. No matter what people are doing, it's important to note that they're aiming at a moving target, as DirecTV put up a new satellite just after the 17th (so more on that next time).

Whichever method or methods is chosen, there's one group that needs all the help it can get - small cable operators. Between the regulatory demands described above and the need to compete in the marketplace for advanced services, many smaller systems find themselves without the necessary bandwidth or customer base (to spread out the cost of needed upgrades). A good Multichannel News overview of the struggles many of them face can be seen here. One hopeful sign - Comcast and Motorola are teaming up to develop and support a package that will enable small operators to go all-digital for less.

Usually when we cover two providers (such as Comcast and Dish) in connection with legal matters, we're talking about them suing each other, but this one's a little different. It seems that both Comcast and Dish have something in common this time, as NFL Network has added a suit against Dish to its long-running action against Comcast. Both actions stem from both companies' desire to place the network in a specialty extra-cost tier, while the network wants to be seen by as many people as possible. Also having tier troubles with Dish is the VOOM suite of channels. You'd think the fact that the VOOM satellite is now owned by EchoStar would mean that VOOM could catch a break, but business is business. Also giving EchoStar the business is TiVo, who are threatening them with a contempt action over their non-compliance with a court order regarding EchoStar's patent-infringing DVRs.

As usual, we'll end this section with a few miscellaneous notes. There are reports that Comcast may be gearing up to expand the rollout of its version of the TiVo service outside New England in the near future, while Cox will be launching its own TiVo service in New England. That should be good news for TiVo, whose stand-alone business has suffered at least in part from their failure to embrace HD earlier (if there'd been an HD TiVo available to DirecTV customers during the time the two companies were working together, they might still be working together). Another benefit of DirecTV's proactive approach to HD is reflected in the bottom line - subscribers are up (much more than Dish) and turnover is down. They also report that more than half their customers now subscribe to either HD and/or their DVR service (but will someone please break those two figures out?), and that their VOD service (which will require a broadband connection) will launch in the second quarter. This must make Liberty Media's John Malone pleased, as the FCC has just approved (after more than a year) Liberty's proposed takeover of DirecTV. Cablevision is also seeing HD subscriber growth, having just passed the million mark. Meanwhile, Verizon's latest FiOS promotion (the one with the free 19" Sharp HDTV) has been so successful that customers are experiencing serious delays in delivery of the sets, with delays also reported in delivery of HD set-top boxes. They've also set up an arrangement with Jordan's Furniture in Massachusetts, creating a "lifestyle alcove" in their stores (starting with Reading) where Jordan's customers can sample Verizon's wares and Jordan's furniture at the same time. There'll be many more potential customers in that area, as they plan to bring FiOS to 30 new Massachusetts communities as part of a $200 million investment. But while they are building a mighty ring around the Boston area, they seem to have little interest in going into Boston itself or its immediate surroundings (such as my own town of Watertown). Finally, in non-traditional provider news, Vudu has a new 1TB (that's 1024 GB) box, but its $999 price tag hardly helps its competitive posture against Apple TV. And (featuring a huge video library including a few HD trailers, though you'll have to have either a Pentium 4.3GHz or Mac Intel Core Duo 1.83GHz processor or better to see the HD) is out of beta.

HD NETWORKS - Wow, I thought it was quiet last month. This time I have very little to report. Nothing launched in the 2/18-3/17 period. ESPNEWS HD supposedly launched on March 30th, but I've been unable to track down any carriage announcements as of that date (there were short simulcasts on ESPN and ESPN2 on launch date) - supposedly DirecTV will be carrying it at some point in April. You can see what it will look like here (thanks to Engadget HD for pointing me to this). It's beginning to look as though the original DirecTV expansion swept up nearly everyone who had any interest in going HD in the near future, and it may be awhile before the late adopters get on board en masse. What's left that you think would make a good HD channel? My own "most wanteds" would be Sundance Channel, IFC and Turner Classic Movies (who I believe would do business very differently from the other Turner HD channels).

Meanwhile, the main ESPN HD channel continued to expand HD by using it for MLB spring training games. Something else is imminent; HGTV and Food Network are following the PBS HD example and moving their HD channels from a separate all-HD schedule to a simulcast of their SD channels, starting March 31st. Lets hope they won't lose as much HD content (at least in the short run) as some of the PBS member stations have.

MANUFACTURERS - I predicted last time that this section would be getting a lot shorter now that the HDM (high-def media) format war is over, but there's a fair amount of mopping up to report on, at least this time. Various players continued to head for the exits, as Samsung killed their dual-format player, Universal announced that it would end HD DVD support with Atonement on March 18th (link via Format War Central), retailers quickly moved to limit or eliminate players and disks (thank to Engadget HD for the link) and Netflix started switching HD DVD titles to DVD in members' queues (as well as making it impossible to re-enable HD DVD in members' profiles once they disable it). Some retailers went so far as to offer trade-ins, although most of these were foreign. Of special note was Circuit City's very quiet willingness to offer credit for players up to 90 days old (alas, I made my own purchase too early to qualify).

One benefit of this (for those who planned to keep using their players, or even pick one up cheap) was the various fire sales going on. In late February, Amazon had Toshiba's HD-A3 for $82 (inexplicably, it's now back up to the list price of $149.95). In a parting gift to the format's fans, Microsoft lowered the price of its Xbox HD DVD add-on to $49.99. But most HD DVD fans already have their equipment, so the most relevant sales were that of disks, such as Best Buy's 30% off sale, or Discovery Channels' 70% discount on the box set of its acclaimed Planet Earth series. And it looks like people were buying, as HD DVD disc sales racked up several of the best weeks they've had in awhile. Something else of benefit to loyalists - in contrast to other producers, Joe Kane Productions continues to offer HD DVD diehards calibration help with a new format-neutral product (and buyers of an earlier HD DVD product will be able to upgrade to either the HD DVD or Blu-ray versions of the new one). And of course, Warner still has a few titles scheduled through May.

Naturally, Toshiba is among those moving on, but not without some damage, a billion dollars worth of damage, to be precise. An interesting fact is that they will not be jumping on the Blu-ray train in the immediate future, preferring to focus on improving their upconverting DVD players to the point where you supposedly won't be able to tell regular DVDs from HD DVDs (so why did they bother with HD DVD at all?). They also want to be a player in the movie download business.

While downloads may be a future problem, for the moment Blu-ray has the HDM market sewn up. Many of the Blu-ray titles Paramount pulled when they switched to HD DVD are back in stock on Amazon, retailers are ramping up their Blu-ray presense (here's an example) and so is NetFlix. It's even possible that Microsoft may be thinking of adding a Blu-ray drive for the Xbox, although this early report was later denied. One negative - lack of competition has done exactly what HD DVD diehards predicted it would and raised player prices.

But looking ahead, Blu-ray will have two major challenges. As mentioned above, downloads are a future problem - studio execs don't see this happening for a long time, and a recent study shows that only 5.7 million U.S. homes even have the broadband available to stream HD (which would indicate that those lacking that ability would find transfer times for later viewing unacceptable as well). So for the moment, Format War 2.0 is primarily a matter between Blu-ray and DVD. How's that one going? The people who've provided the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray figures that have been referenced here numerous times have just started compiling Blu-ray vs. DVD figures, and I'll be taking a look at those starting next time. In the meantime, we note than a new analyst reports predicts a tripling of Blu-ray sales in 2008, that Sony will release full 2.0-compliant players and over 100 titles this year and that those recently-raised hardware prices will be coming back down later this year. Also, the Digital Entertainment Group (whose membership encompasses both the hardware and software sides of the equation) will be stepping up its Blu-ray promo activities. All in all, Blu-ray appears to be getting ready for this new battle.

There are a few other pieces of hardware news to pass along. While Blu-ray (not to mention OLED) is on the march, another major Sony product line (Trinitron TVs and monitors) is finally dead, after having been killed in Japan and the U.S. previously (there were still limited amounts being made for other markets). That's just part of the declining sales picture for CRTs, and I have to say I was surprised to find out that they were just recently overtaken by LCDs on a worldwide basis - I assumed that was old news. Another technology losing ground to LCD (but not in nearly as much trouble) is plasma - Pioneer's acclaimed Kuro line will have both plasma and LCD models come fall (the linked article also references Pioneer's ending of in-house plasma production, but that's really just an outsourcing story, and I'm not reading too much into that at the moment). Still another product line that people have wondered about is TiVo's stand-alone DVR (we've gone into their current problems above), but this isn't stopping them from going ahead with plans to implement tru2way (formerly known as CableCARD 2.0 so as to better access providers' advanced interactive features. And I'm always interested to hear stories about HDTV's planned successor Super Hi-Vision (as Japanese broadcaster NHK is now referring to it) - the latest news concerns the BBC's plans to use it to broadcast parts of the 2012 Olympics on large screens (this is not a technology that makes a big impact on smaller screens) placed in public areas across Britain.

But it's important to remember that the advance of technology is always reliant on the ability and willingness of people to spend money. So the question is, will the current economic uncertainties slow things down, and by how much? I'll close with two possibly-relevant data points - flat-panel inventories rose markedly in January (on a year-to-year basis), and Japanese manufacturers are already planning to focus on smaller screen sizes as a result of slowing sales.

That's all for now!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

12 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 12 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is supposed to cease. This is the 23rd 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 just about two-thirds of 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). That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 1/18 and 2/17 (with one big exception - see the MANUFACTURERS section below).As is usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE and

THE PUBLIC - A new round of surveys came out regarding public awareness of the transition, and the results were mixed at best. Let's start with the good part; more people have heard about the transition. According to a National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) survey, 79 percent of us have seen, read or heard something about it. Sounds pretty good, but there's a catch. As the old saying goes, "It's not what we don't know that's the problem, it's what we know that ain't so", and a lot of what people are taking away from what they're seeing, reading and hearing is, in fact, not exactly so. According to this new Consumer Reports study, over half of those who are aware of the transition believe that all TVs will need a converter box, and nearly half believe that only digital TVs will be able to function after the switch. Of course, it doesn't help matters that (according to this study from the public-interest group U.S. PIRG) most retailers aren't giving out correct information, particularly concerning the coupon program. If the right information doesn't get out there, millions may end up wasting money on converter boxes they don't need (because they have a cable or satellite subscription) or a new TV they don't need (yet). On the other side of the coin, it seems that many who think they are covered, aren't. So as the NAB prepares to broaden its efforts, let's hope it keeps in mind the fact that quality of information is at least as important as quantity. This would also be good advice for the Telemundo network as it launches its Alerta Digital campaign, especially in light of recent Nielsen survey findings that point to a much greater potential impact in the Hispanic community than in the overall population.

One thing I would have expected to happen, didn't. I was expecting to see a bit more media attention paid to all this on 2/17 - perhaps I just wasn't watching the right newscast. The Boston Globe did have a piece, but in the Business section, and mostly dealing with what stocks might benefit. I guess this still isn't real news yet.

GOVERNMENT - Given just how far we have to go (see above), it's no surprise that many in Congress want to see a more aggressive federal effort. People have been calling for more funding for awhile now, and the president's 2008 fiscal does propose an increase in the FCC's public-outreach budget, from a microscopic $2.5 million to $20 million - I guess they could always buy a few Super Bowl ads with that. No surprise that the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee isn't exactly bowled over. What Chairman Dingell (as well his Senate counterpart Daniel Inouye) would like is a transition task force to co-ordinate the government's response. Beyond that, this Multichannel News article suggests a willingness to consider legislation to correct shortcomings.

We mentioned last time that the converter box program was underway, and the process has been gathering momentum since then. People have been able to apply for coupons since Jan 1st, but the boxes haven't been available (or the coupons mailed) until just recently. That all changed when the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) announced that boxes would be available by February 18th, and in fact both Best Buy and Wal-Mart confirmed that they would have them by then (this articleon the program's official "kick-off" event also lists Radio Shack as a vendor). While Best Buy's house-brand Insignia box goes for $60 ($20 after applying the coupon), Wal-Mart is featuring a $49.87 Magnavox model (less than half the cost of the Insignia after applying the discount). I'm not sure who's going to end up selling those $40 (effectively free) Echostar boxes I mentioned last time. Thanks to Engadget HD for pointing me to's complete list of eligible boxes. Astonishingly, one group of people who apparently won't be eligible for coupons is nursing home residents - elderly people whose old analog sets may be one of their only sources of companionship and affordable entertainment, but who are not included in the program's definition of "household". Thanks to for pointing me to this story (originally from, but I can't find it on their site - here's an update).

Another effort under way is auction for the 60MZ of spectrum in the 700MZ band - the old analog TV frequencies. There's already been over 100 rounds of bidding, but we may not actually know the winners until summer. As of Feb 7th, bidding had already exceeded the $10-15 billion the government was expecting. The FCC maintains this page devoted to the auction, and the various links therein lead to far more data than any sane person would want to know (except for the most interesting part - who is bidding for what - which they don't tell you). Thanks to the Webb Alert video podcast for tipping me off to this, as well as to this Robert Cringely article which attempts to make this extremely complex process comprehensible to us mere mortals.

While certain things are progressing, one thing I thought had been checked off the to-do list may be in doubt. Previously the FCC had addressed the needs of analog cable viewers by mandating that cable systems continue carrying an analog version of local broadcast channels for three years after the transition (unless they had already bit the bullet and converted to an all-digital system), This, however, was hardly to the liking of national cable channels concerned about whether this would leave room for their signals (especially on smaller, bandwidth-strapped systems, who have found an ally in Sen. Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens of Alaska), and now they've filed a lawsuit to overturn that rule. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) will abide by the rule (regardless of the legal outcome), but intends to lobby for a broad exemption for those smaller systems mentioned above. Given cable's reaction to this rule, it would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if other initiatives by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin (such as multicast must-carry and now his new idea of low-power must-carry) became mandatory and further limited the available bandwidth (we already know that the NCTA considers the low-power initiative to be a very bad idea. (The reason we are hearing about regulatory relief for Class A low-power stations now is that they are not required to go digital in 2009, and their largely over-the-air audience will disappear as they install converter boxes that do not include analog tuners.) Speaking of the three-year analog mandate mentioned above, a recent attempt by Comcast to partially circumvent this by moving public/educational/government (PEG) channels to digital-only in Michigan was a public-relations disaster that in the end led Comcast to apologize to Congress.

One problem the FCC (or at least Chairman Martin) doesn't seem to be interested in addressing is one that may affect those over-the-air viewers who do know about the transition, have gotten themselves a digital receiver, but may be too far from the signal tower. These are the same people who may be used to snowy reception now, but with digital's all-or-nothing reception, they may well end up on the "nothing" end of the scale. A study by market research firm Centris finds this to be a serious problem, but so far Chairman Martin is siding with critics of the study's methodology. Who's right? This will bear watching.

Just a couple more items here. The FCC has published its December-approved rule forbidding any cable operator from reaching more than 30% of cable households, and Comcast (clearly the intended target) will (as predicted last time in this section) be taking legal action. I've mentioned before that Chairman Martin is pursuing cable on many fronts, and Rep Anna Eshoo (D-Calif) seems to have noticed this as well. I've also mentioned my belief that this stems from cable's resistance to a la carte pricing, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at where fellow Commissioner Michael Copps stands on the issue (he appears to still be making up his mind).

BROADCASTING - For the most part, things continued as normal in this area. Another handful of local stations converted their newscasts to HD (the current total being somewhere around 70) - here's an example. There were other examples of new HD content as well, as WWE transitioned their entire schedule in the course of a week, from broadcast (Smackdown on The CW - though not for long) to cable (RAW on USA, ECW on SciFi) and pay-per-view, spending $20 million in the process. Telemundo has acquired rights to Brazil's first HD telenovela Dance, Dance, Dance. Even the slow-moving transition of syndicated programming had a bit of news, as Everybody Loves Raymond will be available (to those stations properly equipped) on March 17.

When I first started watching HD back in 2003, I would read about all the local stations that had yet to put a digital signal up, but I had sort of assumed that that situation was far in the past by now. Wrong! I know that a bunch of stations had been issued waivers years ago due to the expense, but I had no idea that there were still stations just coming online.

I've mentioned (both in the recap and in these two posts) the problems stations running the PBS HD Channel (the national DT2A feed of HD/WS-only programming that people have been using to show off their sets for years) have been having in carrying the new HD version of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which is carried on a different feed. I was thinking of revisiting my research for this update to see which stations have made progress, but it's kind of irrelevant now, for two reasons. First, this comment from "jimbob" shows that PBS is in fact adding The NewsHour to the DT2A feed in May. Even more significantly, the PBS HD Channel itself is not long for this world. Thanks to Engadget HD for pointing me to this article from Current, which among other things reveals that PBS will be trading in the channel sometime this fall for the solution used by the other broadcast networks - a simulcast combining HD/WS programming where available with upconversion for the rest. So if you have some favorite PBS HD shows that aren't on the regular PBS schedule, you might want to consider saving them for posterity. I didn't, and just in the last few days WGBH in Boston dropped the PBS HD Channel and replaced it with a simulcast of their regular channel.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - This is another where most of what happened represented a continuation of earlier trends. DirecTV's competitors continued to do what they could to add HD channels. For example, Comcast added two of their newest aquisitions (SciFi and Animal Planet) in Boston, and six in Seattle (those two plus Discovery Channel, TLC, HGTV and Food Network), and various adds all over the place. Their competitors (most notably Time Warner) did likewise.

But there's only so much of this they can do before they run out of room - unless they implement some new technology. In this Q&A, Cox's Steve Necessary discusses various plans (after first pointing out that selectivity can help offset mere tonnage). As mentioned last month, Comcast is hoping to deflect attention from all that tonnage by emphasizing their HD VOD selections, and they are now offering up some details. How well will this work? Personally, I think this kind of strategy will work better with the customers of the future (who will have grown up with VOD as a basic part of their viewing) than it will with the customers of today, who I suspect just want more channels. Which is probably why, even with all the talk of "choices", Comcast is planning to get up to the 50-60 channel mark in "typical" systems by years' end (by comparison with today, my local system has 34 HD channels, and we are probably a bit better than typical). I know they've made claims that haven't panned out before, but note that they are talking to their investors here - you have to be careful with what you tell those people, as they're apt to sue if they think they've invested under false pretenses.

One of the options we've mentioned in our ongoing discussion of bandwidth-maximization methods is to eliminate analog altogether, in contrast to the chipping-away method most providers use at the moment. The latest report of this comes from Chicago, where RCN has done just that. no surprise as to the location - Comcast has provided cover for them by doing the same thing back in July.

Another trend that just keeps on going is the expansion of the telco services. U-Verse reached 231,000 subs by the end of 2007, and now FiOS has reached the million mark. Success can bring problems, though - FiOS has run short of HD boxes!

HD NETWORKS - Another fairly quiet month. We did have one launch, as Speed debuted on Feb 7th. A couple of existing networks made plans to increase their HD content, as The Weather Channel prepared for a June 2nd launch of its HD studio and ESPN announced yet more games in HD. There was a channel announcement, as Hallmark Movie Channel set an April debut. And while they aren't launching a linear channel yet, IFC (one of my personal most-wanted) has launched an "HD" (so far it's WS upconverts) VOD channel to premiere its original series and anime.

Multichannel News recently ran a series of eight HD channel profiles, taking a look at their experiences and plans. Here is the intro, and the individual profiles for Mojo, ESPN, National Geographic Channel, Speed, Big Ten Network, Wealth TV, Discovery and The Weather Channel.

MANUFACTURERS - I began this section last time with the observation that "when it's time for something to happen, it can happen with head-spinning speed". That continued to be demonstrated in the last month, as the HDM (short for High Definition Media, what I've been calling NextGen DVD) format war reached its Appomattox two days after our close. So let's look back on that tumultuous time right now (since this is essentially the end of the story, I'm going to drop the usual date-range limitations altogether this once and bring the story up to where it stands now).

Things looked pretty dire back on Jan 17th, but some still believed that all hope was not lost, even after the Gartner Group study that called recent HD DVD price cuts "useless resistance", or the NDP Group figures that showed Blu-ray grabbing 93 percent of player sales the week after Warner announced its intention to go Blu-exclusive after May (and stand-alone players were HD DVD's greatest area of strength). Still, most observers on Jan 17th probably agreed with Crave's Ian Morris when he answered the question "Can Anything Save HD DVD"? by saying "it seems pretty unlikely", or with CNET's Charles Cooper, who wrote the next day that he didn't care who won, as long as it was over.

Still, Toshiba was not prepared to give up just yet. HD DVDs last campaign began with the above-mentioned price cuts, which with a further Amazon discount took the price of a Toshiba HD-A3 down to $129.95 on Jan 18th. And at first it seemed to be working, at least a little bit; player sales rebounded to 28% (measured in units) and disks came back as far as 26% (not far from their historical range). And at least one of the HD DVD-exclusive studios (Universal) was quick to point out that it wasn't going anywhere. As mentioned last time, the head of the HD DVD Promotional Group is Universal's Ken Graffeo, so no big surprise there. This BetaNews interview(thanks again to Engadget HD) gives a look at what Mr. Graffeo was thinking in late January.

But the centerpiece of the campaign was to be a Super Bowl ad, which was supposed to focus on the advantages of the format. Unfortunately, the ad as aired was a crushing disappointment. Rather than trying to make its case against Blu-ray, it simply pointed out that it was a good complement to your HDTV. The closest it came to making that case was the end, where it flashed the new HD-A3 price and some retailer logos for a couple of seconds. On top of that, it turned out to be a regional, not a national buy. Even worse, it aired in SD!

After that, all the news was bad. As another NDP Group study showed growing consumer interest in Blu-ray, various small studios began to go Blu-exclusive (as had National Geographic earlier), the gap in available titles grew wider and Warner made clear that only in special cases would they be willing to supply their existing HD DVD titles to retailers after May. And disc sales percentages fell back below 20%.

But much worse was to come. February 11th was a very bad day, as Netflix announced that they would phase out HD DVDs over the course of the year, and Best Buy announced that they would actively promote Blu-ray as the "right solution" in high-def media. Even the HD DVD Promotional Group had to struggle to find the tiny little bit of positive news in all this (that being that Best Buy would still stock some HD DVD products). However, an even worse day was near. On Feb 15th, Wal-Mart (the nation's largest retailer) announced it would go Blu-exclusive by June.

This was on a Friday, leaving the weekend open for speculation. Reports that Toshiba might be ready to pull the plug were circulating even the day before the Wal-Mart announcement, and understandably accelerated the day after, with reports quoting company sources (but not official spokespersons) that it really was all over. Monday the 18th was a holiday in the USA, but business as usual in Japan, where the decisions were going to be made. While Toshiba first stated that no decision had been made, the statement was definitely of the type we remember from just before Warner defected, and the Japanese stock market reacted accordingly, sending Toshiba shares soaring on anticipation of an imminent end to the bleeding. The market got what it was looking for the next day, with Toshiba's official announcement that they would abandon the format by the end of March (see an account of the press conference here. This was followed two days later by confirmation that Onkyo was doing likewise (haven't heard yet about Venturer - which like Onkyo bases their HD DVD hardware on Toshiba designs - or those cheap Chinese players that were supposedly coming). A few days after that, Microsoft stated their intention to cease manufacturing their HD DVD add-on drive for the Xbox 360.

With the main hardware sources giving up, it didn't take long the remaining studio supporters to adjust to the new reality. Universal announced support for Blu-ray within hours of Toshiba's announcement, and Paramount followed suit the next day. It's taken a bit longer to get some clarity on the matter of how long HD DVDs would continue to be released. While Warner quickly reaffirmed their previously-stated intention to release HD DVDs until May 31st, it took Paramount/Dreamworks until Feb 28th to announce that its March 4th releases (Things We Lost in the Fire and Into the Wild) would be their last. This means no HD DVD versions of Bee Movie, Sweeney Todd or There Will Be Blood. And Universal's HD DVD plans are still undecided.

So that is what is left of HD DVD as of this writing. Some old hardware remaining to be sold (the HD-A3 that seemed such a bargain at $200 is going for $99 at Amazon with the description "Upconverting DVD player with HD DVD playback"), a few more disks to be released and one confirmed manufacturer going forward - LG, who for the moment will not be pulling their combo players. More on the mopping-up operations next time. Until then, those wanting to take one last look backward at the format war may enjoy Ben Drawbaugh's compact timeline covering the entire story.

Looking ahead, the story will be that of the struggle of HDM (represented by Blu-ray) to win over the masses from their DVDs (increasingly being played in upconverting players that may well be good enough for many, if not most). As I mentioned last time, it is not clear yet whether Blu-ray will be the real successor to DVD, or the new high-end format for videophiles (as was laserdisc in its day). So far, comparisons between the early days of HDM (both formats) and DVD are mixed, with HDM even-to-ahead when measured by player sales, but lagging behind on the discs themselves. Nevertheless, studio chiefs are looking to the recent HDM unification for the shot in the arm the business needs, given recent DVD sales erosion. And just in case you've forgotten, plucky little HD VMD is still out there (who would have thought they could outlast HD DVD?), but I have trouble believing they have ambitions beyond being a niche market player supported mostly by foreign software and appealing to those who are interested in same.

We'll finish up this month with a few pieces of other hardware news (I get the feeling this section is going to be a lot shorter in upcoming months). Toshiba and Panasonic have teamed up to solve a technical problem limiting the lifespan of OLED displays. For those interested in Panasonic's overall HD plans, this interview sheds some light on them. And there are reports that TiVo will be killing off the Series 3 in favor of the newer TiVo HD.

That's all for now!