Saturday, May 31, 2008

Nine Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than nine months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is currently scheduled to cease. This is the 26th 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). That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 4/18 and 5/17. Major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE, Broadcasting & Cable and

THE PUBLIC - Since I've been doing these monthly updates, this section has relied on a multitude of surveys to try to get a bead on the public's knowledge and readiness for the changes to come. But soon we're going to get information of a more direct nature, as Wilmington, N.C. becomes the nation's first transition test market, with all major stations (except for public station UNC-TV) turning off their analog signals on September 8, less than four months from now. Being neither a large urban area or rural and isolated (and with a smaller-than-average percentage of over-the-air viewers), this small city should have an easier go of it than many other areas (even given that they'll have less time to prepare). So smooth sailing here should not be cause for too much complacency, while any significant problems ought to be taken as a major wake-up call. As I mentioned in my May 8th post, I'd like to see at least one large city do a test like this, and now that I think of it a test in a rural area further from the transmission towers might be useful as well. We'll keep checking back on this one.

Smaller, more modest tests were also announced. Eleven Florida stations are planning a joint series of three several-second blackouts (only seen on the analog channels) accompanied by information on how to avoid a permanent blackout. They were beaten to the punch by one Las Vegas station, which has already done something similar (link via Engadget HD).

While most stations aren't conducting tests, they seem to be flooding the airwaves with "Are You Ready for DTV?"-type ads (remember, these will become even more frequent starting in October). But there are still other things that could be done to get the word out, and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) thinks that its high time that the President himself got involved.

GOVERNMENT - As we've been doing lately, we'll start off with news of the most visible transition-related government initiative, the converter-box program. Last time I mentioned that the new head of the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) had stated that they had mailed out about 6 million of the 33.5 million coupons the current program calls for. Now we have news from the Commerce Department that over one million of these have been used. Given that these coupons expire in 90 days, it would seem that a lot of coupons need to be cashed in posthaste. So what happens to those who procrastinate? Can they reapply? Right now, the NTIA refuses to say whether or not they can.

There was news concerning other government mandates as well. Last July, cable companies had to start using CableCARD-enabled set-top boxes (in order to separate security functions from the rest of the hardware in the box, thus allowing third parties to offer alternative boxes that could work with cable service). This coming July, it's the telcos' (e.g. Verizon, AT&T) turn. Meanwhile, an appeal by Comcast to exempt certain of their boxes from the existing mandate was rejected by a federal appeals court. Also having business before an appeals court were six cable programming companies urging the court to overturn the FCC mandate requiring cable operators to provide both the analog and digital signals of must-carry stations (unless the provider has switched to all-digital) after the transition (currently for three years, with extensions possible). This, of course, because additional bandwidth given over to analog signals reduces the bandwidth available to their own channels.

In other government news, the ongoing dispute between FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and both Congress and the cable industry continued on. A Senate committee rebuked the FCC over recent rules allowing concentration of media ownership in the same market (i.e. the extent to which broadcasters and newspapers can own each other in said market), and Rep. John Dingell's (D-Mich) investigation of Martin's management practices could be headed to a hearing in June. Meanwhile, Chairman Martin stands firm on one of the most contentious issues between him and the larger cable companies, that of a la carte, and has a new idea (based on the rates that cable networks charge per customer) that could shrink the size of expanded basic tiers. (I specifically mention larger cable companies as being in opposition because smaller companies with less bandwidth are more receptive to gaining the ability to cherry-pick just the most popular channels from distributors that currently offer them in bundles with less-desired ones.)

One more group with business before the FCC was the film industry, who are petitioning the FCC to lift the ban preventing cable and satellite companies from disabling customers' analog outputs when playing their protected content, offering earlier VOD release dates as an incentive.

BROADCASTING - While the conversion of local newscasts to HD had slowed to an inexplicable crawl last time, it was a very different story in the last month, with nine new additions by my count, bringing the total up to about 90. Others are prepping for the change later this year. But it's one thing to have your studio broadcasting your snazzy new set in beautiful HD, it's another to get your location crews set up to actually send you HD from the field. The slowness of this conversion-within-a-conversion is partly related to the need for new microwave equipment, as explained here. Field cameras are also an area that has been slow to change, but the pace is accelerating. There were also developments on the national Sunday morning news front, with ABC's This Week going HD and Fox News Sunday expected to follow suit in August (it's currently shot in widescreen SD, though some have mistaken it for HD). NBC's Meet The Press will be going next year, but no plans have been announced for CBS's Face The Nation.

News is not the only area of broadcasting where programming is converting to HD - the syndication market got a big boost with announcements regarding Entertainment Tonight and its sister show The Insiders (going in September) and The Ellen DeGeneres Show (starting Monday, September 8th).

The most recent edition of National Association of Broadcasters' NAB Show was the last of the analog era (assuming the current dates remain in place), and while trying to snap up any remaining equipment they need to finish their transition implementation plans, many attendees were already looking past the transition to new areas of interest such as mobile DTV. For the sake of comparison, note that analog isn't going anywhere soon in Taiwan, where HD is still getting off the ground.

Back in November, I posted info about HD transmissions from the moon (via Japan's KAYUGA satellite), even though thats not quite "broadcasting" in the sense we use here. Anyway, I thought you might want to see the latest batch, which are even cooler.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - More continuity than change this month, as various providers continue to bring their lagging markets the channels previously seen in high-bandwidth areas, resulting in double-digit additions in places like the Oregon/SW Washington area, Panama City, Florida and Northwest Arkansas, among others. For those Comcast markets that were already up to date, the most common additions were the trio of Disney, ABC Family and Science Channel (the latter being the only one that I have high HD-experience expectations for in the near term). However, this good news doesn't apply to everyone - there are still towns out there with no HD at all.

But these expanded lineups pale before those currently available on satellite, with DirecTV currently having the lead. Competitor Dish Networks briefly attained parity (95) in national channels by adding 22, a fact which they announced with a press release. And it was actually true for the few hours between the time they added the new channels and the time they removed first 10 and then all 15 of the VOOM channels (after earlier moving VOOM to a less-popular tier) . Oddly enough, the fact that they now only had 80 HD channels was apparently not considered to be worth a press release of its own.

I guess that's the sort of thing that can happen when you're under the gun to increase capacity (Dish is on record as attributing slow subscriber growth to their less-robust HD offering). With another DirecTV satellite supposed to be operational around September, the pressure is just going to get worse, even though Dish has more satellites going up this year and others scheduled as far out as 2010. Cable and telco providers have even more severe problems in that area, as they can't just add capacity at will via new satellites. Yet the need to expand both linear channel and HD VOD capacity is undeniable, as providers trumpet their success in signing up more and more HD customers. This Multichannel News article takes an extended look at the tools (SDV, analog reclamation, MPEG-4, etc.) many providers are using or planning to use in the near future. As an example of one of those methods, Cablevision is doing some analog reclamation in May and June (Comcast will be doing some here in New England in mid-July). In addition, Verizon continues to eliminate analog altogether (as was mentioned last time), doing so in Massachusetts on May 12.

That was not that hard for Verizon, which has been primarily a digital provider from the beginning. Eliminating analog for companies with a large base of change-resistant "legacy" customers will be a different matter entirely. Years and years of relentless marketing have finally put digital cable customers in the majority, but many millions are still holding on to their good old it-aint-broke service. How to get those folks to come over without alienating them forever (once you have to have an STB, you might just start to think about whose STB you'd rather have)? One way is to make the transition as invisible as possible. A few months ago I mentioned that Comcast was interested in a cheap DTA (Digital Terminal Adapter) that would not require a box. Plans seem to changed a bit in the meantime, as they (among others) seem to have settled on a DTA that will come in the form of a bare-bones box similar to the converter boxes for over-the-air viewers (but with a cable tuner instead on ATSC tuner). It's still a box, but is designed to come as close to the analog experience as possible. We'll see how that one goes over.

We always have some legal matters to report between various providers. Comcast and AT&T have been getting into it in the Chicago area, with AT&T alleging false advertising (implying that many more U-Verse customers would have to put with large utility boxes on their property than is actually the case) and Comcast countersuing over alleged network interference due to faulty U-Verse installs. Comcast is also suing the municipal utility in Chattanooga over their competitive fiber-to-the-home product, alleging unfair advantage and a proposal that does not accurately state costs that would have to be subsidized by the ratepayers.

One thing digital technology has done has been to open the market for video services to companies other than the traditional providers. Apple, for instance, who recently announced the ability to buy movies on iTunes on the same date as their DVD release, as well the ability to buy movies directly on Apple TV (previously, you could only rent, with purchased movies having to be synced from ITunes). iTunes is also adding other content, such as shows from BBC America. Another non-traditional player is Amazon, whose Unbox service will be able to deliver HD content to broadband-connected TiVos "in the not too distant future". Even the PS3 is getting into the act, with a video download service that could start this summer. Finally, a new startup called Sezmi is planning to offer a service cobbled together from over-the-air, IPTV and Web video content, which it plans to offer through smaller telcos who currently lack the ability to offer services to compete with Verizon and AT&T. Sounds, um, complicated.

HD NETWORKS - Things have been pretty quiet in the area of new channel launches and announcements lately, but I'm seeing some acceleration this month, and I have an idea as to why. If you think back to last September, the launch of a new DirecTV satellite caused an explosion of new HD channels (although many have had little actual HD to offer), and thus it's no surprise that the supply of new channels began to dry up when that new satellite began to fill up. With another 50 or so slots opening up at DirecTV this September, we may be about to see a new wave of activity. So we saw three launches this month - two domestic (QVC, which "launched" without any carriage agreements, and Fox News, which launched on Time Warner) and one foreign (HBO Ole, which launched in Argentina), as well as four new-channel announcements.

The biggest attention-getter was the yet-unnamed premium channel backed by Viacom, Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate, which intends to launch next year. This is a direct shot at Showtime, which currently gets most of its movies from the three studios involved, and who will be losing that content in two years. But Showtime's Stu Zakim claims not to be worried, and the real upshot of all this may be to force Showtime to concentrate even more on the original series that provide most of its hits these days. Another new channel launching next year is the Black Television News Channel. Two other channel groups expanded their portfolios, with A&E (A&E, Biography, History) adding Crime and Investigaton HD in the fourth quarter, and Starz Entertainment reviving Encore HD (which it started and then had to drop several years ago due to lack of provider interest) in July.

Existing channels were also doing a bit of expanding (of their HD content), with MHD (which has sought to combine the music-related programming from MTV, VH1 and CMT) now adding music programming (in the form of a Scissor Sisters concert) from the gay-themed Logo channel, while the Weather Channel debuts its new HD studio set. And some other channels are expanding their reach, with National Geograpic HD launching in Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany (where MHD is also bound). Meanwhile, a couple of recent entrants expanded their audiences, as Cox agreed to carry Lifetime HD and Lifetime Movie Network HD and Comcast signed an agreement for MGM HD.

MANUFACTURERS - Not much mopping up left to do from the recent HDM (high-def media) format war - according to this site there are just four more HD DVD titles left to be released. Yet more information on the effect HD DVD has had on Toshiba's bottom line has come to light - first-quarter profits are down 95% on a year-over-year basis.

The ongoing struggle is that between HDM (represented by Blu-ray) and DVD, and these figures show that we are still in the very early innings of this one. Two recent reports (one focusing on price, the other on consumers' basic satisfaction with current DVDs and upconverting players) from ABI Research suggest that Blu-ray will be slow to win consumers over - people just don't think the difference (especially with an upconverting player) is worth the current price. More evidence - a poll from Harris Interactive says that only nine percent of consumers plan to buy a Blu-ray player in the next year. Even Blu-ray backer Disney (who will be adding a bunch of interactive features to its re-release of Sleeping Beauty) recognizes the need to lower prices. On that front, we're just starting to see a move to lower hardware prices, like this $298 Funai deck (marketed under the Magnavox, and Sylvania names) available at Wal-Mart. However, retailers are reluctant to do so for discs, at least until demand picks up (hey retailers - I can think of something that will boost that demand). And Netflix isn't exactly helping with their plan to raise subscription fees for Blu-ray customers. Still, you can't deny that there's been substantial progress - first-quarter disc sales are up 351% year-over-year.

Another thing that should contribute to more demand is an increase the in range of releases available, and we're seeing some signs of that. Paramount (an ex-HD DVD exclusive studio) has finally gotten their release program underway. One of the things that helped HD DVD disc sales remain as competitive as they did during the war was catalog titles, which makes the Blu-ray debut of the Criterion Collection of film classics very welcome news (not to mention the same-as-SD pricing!). Musician Neil Young has a novel use for the format - he's going to release his entire music archive on it. And the indie studios are starting to be heard as well. So perhaps the Bernstein Research prediction that sees Blu-ray in 25% of American homes within three years isn't all that far off.

Turning to other hardware news, everyone's talking about the OLED display technology, even though it's currently only known for very small screens at very large prices. But the quality is such that every twist and turn on the road to larger displays at reasonable prices will continue to get attention. Already, last month's prediction that it will take four years to get to that point is being challenged by Samsung (2009-2010), Sumitomo (the same) and LG Displays (2011). But we also heard the first discouraging word, in the form of a DisplaySearch report that said that the set it tested began to lose it's brightness after only 1,000 hours (and a full 50% of said brightness after 17,000 hours). This rave review (link via Engadget HD) from Consumer Reports doesn't mention the problem, but also doesn't mention if they tested for it.

Near the other end of the mass-adoption curve are HDTVs overall - according to Magid Associates, 5.5 million U.S. households bought one for the first time over the holiday/Superbowl period. Somewhere between the two in terms of adoption is the HD camcorder, which seems to be really taking off right about now.

One last note, with the public only becoming aware of DTV in the last few years, you wouldn't think that people have been laying the groundwork for all of this for 25 years, but it's true. The ATSC (Advanced Television Standards Committee) recently gathered to celebrate this anniversary, reminisce about the early years of doubt and struggle and look ahead to new advances such as mobile DTV.

That's all I have for now!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

In Wilmington, NC, It's Just FOUR Months and Counting!

This cannot wait for the next monthly update.

It may be nine months and nine days until the digital TV transition hits nationwide, but the residents of Wilmington, NC will be waking up in that future more than five months ahead of schedule, as the city has signed up to be the first transition test market with a "go" date of September 8, 2008, just four months from now. While results there may not be totally representative of what you might expect to happen in a large urban area (as a market, Wilmington ranks 135th of 210 nationwide, and the 7.4% of viewers that rely on over-the-air TV is well below the national average), we should get a lot of important data as to what kind of problems various demographic groups experience, as well as some insight into the extent of potential reception glitches.

Once the data is in and any necessary adjustments to the overall plan have been made, I hope that at least one large city can get up and running a couple of months before 2/17/09. In the meantime, we'll be watching Wilmington.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

10 Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than 10 months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is currently scheduled to cease. This is the 25th 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 3/18 and 4/17.).As is usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE and

THE PUBLIC - Last time, I was disparaging current public education campaigns, pointing out that I hadn't even seen repeats of those DTV Answers spots lately. Well, at least that much has changed. As I mentioned last time, April 1st was the scheduled date for a notable increase in the number of transition-related ads, as well as the introduction of screen crawls. And despite the flexibility the FCC has given local broadcasters in scheduling these in less-valuable (and less-watched) timeslots, I have definitely seen a lot more ads (and a few screen crawls) in the last few weeks. In fact, even HD broadcast channels (whose viewers are likely to be set for the changeover) have had screen crawls. Personally, I find the scrawls very hard to ignore (I suspect those of us who already know this info are going to get very tired of them, even more so starting in October, when the frequency is scheduled to increase). However, opinions are divided over the effectiveness of current spots (and the need to do more), as shown by comments made at the recent Washington Forum sponsored by the Consumer Electronic Association (CEA), as well as at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual NAB Show. I'd say it's better to air on the side of caution - I'd rather be a bit annoyed than have additional millions caught by surprise. So it's good (despite what seemed like rather complacent comments last time from CEA head Gary Shapiro) that the organization is making other efforts to spread the word, such as the information session they hosted along with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and RadioShack, or their senior-targeted "Convert Your Mom" campaign. For a look at some others trying to spread awareness, check out the webcasts accessible from this list of FCC DTV Consumer Education Workshops (thanks to Cymon for the tip).

As far as current public awareness goes, a new Magid Associates study shows that roughly 6 in 10 Americans are aware of the transition, up from 34 percent last September. However, as pointed out a couple of months ago, quality of information is at least as important as quantity, so I'd be curious to see a bit more detail concerning what those 6 in 10 actually know. And knowledge does not automatically give one the ability to take action. Last month's update contained a notable comment concerning the impact of these changes on elderly people with limited resources. Then there are over-the-air viewers who live in "challenging" reception areas, people who might be used to so-so analog reception but who will fall on the "nothing" side of DTV's all-or-nothing reception equation. How many people might we be looking at there? This study says up to 9.2 million (and I couldn't help noticing that Boston is considered to be one of the more vulnerable areas).

GOVERNMENT - Right now, the main transition-related government initiative is the converter-box program administered by the NTIA. The new head of the NTIA says the converter-box program is working just fine (they appear to have mailed out about 6 million of the 33.5 million coupons the current program calls for). But this is another area where it's important that people be given correct info, as is demonstrated by this Engadget HD shopping trip (the short version; the local Best Buy and RadioShack came out ahead when it came to checking to see if the customer actually needed the box in the first place). It also helps if the boxes actually work well, (unlike this GE model) so check out the comments section of this Engadget HD post for some user reviews of boxes.

The other big story is the auction of the old analog-TV spectrum, results of which (after 261 rounds!) were finally released. This article from Multichannel News runs down the winners. Google was one of the bidders, but confirmed what many suspected - they were only bidding on a particular slice of spectrum (known as the C block) in order to push the bidding beyond the $4.6 billion mark necessary to activate open access rules for that spectrum (you see, Google has its own mobile platform in the works...). Someplace else Google would like to see utilized for mobile use after the transition is the "white space" between TV stations, but broadcasters are not thrilled with this idea.

Government was also busy in the area of carriage requirements. The FCC cut satellite providers and small cable operators a significant amount of slack, with satcasters being allowed to roll out their carriage of HD locals over a four-year period after the transition, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is now proposing that small cable operators be exempted from the requirement to carry both digital and analog versions of must-carry stations (they can just downconvert to analog and carry only that). As for the latter, it may help smaller systems manage their bandwidth, but not having HD after February of next year will surely make a provider look "small time" in more ways than one, especially when satcasters offer service everywhere, as this article points out.

Waivers were granted to small operators in another area as well, as two companies were allowed to bypass the CableCARD mandate and deploy old-style set-top boxes with integrated security features instead. They may not be the last! (At the same time, CableCARD-enabled set-tops passed the four-million-deployed mark.) The FCC was a bit less forgiving as regards another mandate, the one requiring consumer warning labels on any analog TVs that still remain on the shelves, slapping millions of dollars in fines on retailers such as Sears, K-Mart, Wal-Mart and Circuit City. Surprisingly, Best Buy also got hit - when I was researching my series on the tuner mandate last year, my local Best Buy was the first store I saw with no analog TVs at all. BTW, those tuner mandates just got tougher, with labeling now required on tuner-less monitors and other devices such as DVD recorders.

There was also news in other, less transition-related areas. Mostly these concerned the FCC's struggles with Congress and cable companies, over issues like media concentration (the FCC is trying to loosen the ownership rules), a la carte (Chairman Martin wants it, over the objections of broadcasters, providers and a number of lawmakers), net neutrality (one area where I do agree with the FCC) and signal carriage (the NFL Network is complaining over their treatment by Comcast).

With all of this, it's important to remember that it's not just analog TV that's going away next year, so is this administration (and presumably its political appointees). So cable, at least, is looking forward to better times ahead, and is determined to ride out the remainder of Chairman Martin's term.

BROADCASTING - The conversion of local news operations to HD continued at a crawl - I actually only have one example to offer this time out (however, it's looking like things will be considerably different next time). So instead of more examples, I thought you might enjoy this interview with Sterling Davis of Cox Television, whose company has already converted seven of their local stations. On the national level, ABC's This Week became the first Sunday morning news show (Fox's Sunday morning show is in widescreen SD) to announce its intention to go HD - their first HD broadcast was a couple of days after our close.

Outside of news, a fair number of shows announced forthcoming HD conversions. One of the biggest SD holdouts is the reality genre, so it's notable that Survivor (the most popular show in that genre) is now onboard for a fall HD debut (shooting this summer). Other shows on the way include Sesame Street, Cops (currently in Fox Widescreen) and Oprah.

I wrote last month about the dismal experience of watching my local PBS station drop the PBS HD Channel for a simulcast with very little HD (although that did mean I finally got to see The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in HD). Thankfully, I can now report that with the end of the latest pledge period a few days a week now have a decent amount of HD in primetime. Also upping their amount of HD programming - regional sports networks (AKA RSNs) and the forthcoming Summer Olympics.

With The Day drawing so close, local stations and the broadcast groups representing them had a lot to do at the recent NAB Show - here's a look at how six major groups are preparing.

One of the downsides of all this to viewers sticking with analog TVs after the transition is that they will be seeing a lot of downconverted digital programming, which may mean a lot more letterboxed shows than some people want to see. This may explain why ABC's 10 owned-and-operated stations will continue to offer an analog feed to cable companies, for at least a year after 2/17/09.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The big story in this section (everyone else's attempts to stay competitive with DirecTV's HD offerings) continues to be the big story (and will probably be so for some time to come). As we saw last time, channels are now being added in great big chunks. Most of these are designed to bring lagging areas up to the standard previously seen in high-bandwidth regions, but there are also a few channels that are new to cable (such as Disney, Toon Disney and ABC Family), or U-Verse's introduction of HBO2 HD, HBO Comedy HD and HBO Family HD.

Of course, you can only go so far in this direction without doing something to add capacity.Dish's attempts to add capacity via a new satellite have run into some problems, as that satellite (AMC-14) was declared a total loss. Despite this, Dish is saying that their HD rollout plans are on track, and in fact they have been adding a few national channels as well as expanding their coverage of local broadcast channels. The only way I can make sense of this is to assume that the HD plans they're referring to involve what they can do with the remaining capacity on their existing satellites, and that they will have to wait for the next two satellites to take a real run at DirecTV. The problem there is that DirecTV's recent satellite launch was a success, and they now have plans to expand capacity to 150 national channels by September. So good luck to everyone else!

Cable doesn't have the option of adding capacity via something like a satellite, and providers have been trying various methods to compensate. The links I gave above for channel adds don't say, but I suspect that technologies like Switched Digital Video (SDV) are coming into play with at least some of them. One other way Comcast has been doing it is to squeeze three channels (rather than the usual two) into a 6Mz channel, and this study shows that the resulting bitrates are noticeably lower than those of Verizon. People must be noticing, or Verizon would not be exploiting the situation with these recent commercials. Given the recent survey that finds operators citing video quality as one of the top causes of viewer complaints, this doesn't seem to be a very wise course of action on Comcast's part. I mentioned SDV above, and that method carries its own problems. For instance, Cablevision customers using a CableCARD connection can no longer see the Voom channels, which are going SDV. Even worse, many CableCARD-enabled TVs (unless they use TiVo with the upcoming "tuning resolver") may never support SDV.

Another way to get more HD bandwidth is to reclaim space from analog, which Verizon is doing. I have to confess that I didn't realize Verizon had any analog to get rid of in the first place, but apparently it's designed for additional TVs in the household - or was. And then there's IPTV (the IP standing for Internet Protocol), whose worldwide subscriber base is expected to increase 52% a year through 2012. One thing that will speed that along is this prepackaged content/equipment solution for providers, from the partnership of Avail Media and Motorola.

Last time I mentioned Cox's goal of 80 channels by year's end, and here's a bit more on that. Another expansive forecast is Time Warner's 100 channels prediction for New York and New Jersey by year's end (they have 50 now, pretty good for cable). However providers get the job done, they'll need all that capacity and more if we start to see 1080P channels in a few years time.

There continued to be legal matters between the various providers. Dish Network's appeal for a rehearing of TiVo's patent-infringement lawsuit was denied by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, but they seem to be prepared to take this one to the Supreme Court. Also denied was Verizon, who were seeking a temporary restraining order to block two Time Warner Cable TV ads that they feel contain false statements about FiOS service.

There was more news on the franchising front, with lawmakers in Louisiana and Tennessee considering state franchising (the Tennessee bill seems to have been put together with AT&T's U-Verse in mind). Meanwhile, Verizon is asking for a city-wide franchise in New York City.

In the area of non-traditional providers, there's some interesting news concerning Blockbuster's plans to compete against Apple TV with its own set-top box. And Eric Feng from comments on the future of HD on the Web here.

HD NETWORKS - It's still fairly quiet on this front, but do have a bit more than last time. As mentioned last-time, ESPNews HD launched, and is currently available on DirecTV (supposedly Dish, Comcast and Time Warner are next). Two other networks launched as well, both aimed directly at the mainstream audience. Hallmark Movie Channel HD's held its launch party in Peoria, Ill. The other launch was Lifetime Television HD, carried by U-Verse and FiOS (Lifetime Movie Network has been in HD for awhile now). There was also a channel announcement, although this one was more of a rebranding, as Discovery Home becomes Planet Green (with an HD simulcast added).

But it not just the number of channels out there that I'm interested in, it's also the amount of actual HD, and in that area, we have taken a step back, as the previously-mentioned simulcasts of Food Network and HGTV have - as feared - resulted in a marked decline in true HD content relative to their all-HD predecessors. And this leads me to wonder about the future of HD
"showcase" channels as the expanding HD viewership becomes more mainstream (and more inclined towards HD versions of the TV brands they already know) every month.

But at least someone still believes in the showcase concept - Clint Stinchcomb of HD Theater, who is profiled here. And the VOOM networks haven't given up, with the Equator HD channel adding new series. And the simulcast problem will eventually grow less severe (as early viewers of ESPN HD can attest) - even widely-derided TBS has begun to add a bit of real HD.

MANUFACTURERS - Mopping-up operations from the recent HDM (high-def media) format war continued, as Toshiba forecast a $665.5 million loss for HD DVD operations in fiscal year 2007. Various retailers tried to make it up to those who bought HD DVD players from them, as Best Buy offered $50 gift cards and Amazon offered $50 in credit, while Wal-Mart went them one better by offering full refunds on players bought after Nov 1st. Other signs of the times including HD DVD discs vanishing from Best Buy, and the departure of Ken Graffeo (former HD DVD Promotional Group head) from his HD marketing position at Universal, though he will still be at the studio (which has now announced its Blu-ray release plans - thanks to Engadget HD for pointing us to this) in some position or other. Still, there is one more piece of hardware to be introduced, a Plextor combo drive (for computers) as well as an update to the Xbox's HD DVD drive.

So how has the resolution of this conflict benefited the winner? So far, Blu-ray disc sales appear to be rising, Sony is pumping new money into disc production, Blockbuster is expanding Blu-ray availability from 1,700 to almost 5,000 stores and analysts forecast that the format will be in 29 million homes worldwide by the end of this year. But as this chart shows, the new struggle against standard DVDs is still in the extremely early stages, with Blu-ray having just four percent market share (it also shows that those vanishing HD DVD discs are still selling better than in any time in recent memory). The other struggle will eventually be with downloads, but that's for the future, according to studios (for one thing, only 5.7M homes have the necessary connections). But there's another possibility - flash memory cards. According to THX's chief scientist, this medium will have enough storage capacity to compete with Blu-ray by the time that format gets to the mass-market level (hmmm... let's ask the studios what they think of this one). In the meantime, look for players to get cheaper and gain new capabilities. Of course, Blu-ray isn't strictly an American phenomenon, so every so often we need to take a look at how things are going worldwide.

Moving on to other hardware news, LCD continued to gain as a display technology as Circuit City reported weak sales for projection and plasma, and Canon joined the list of those who have dropped the rear-projection line completely. We've been covering the first faltering steps of the OLED display technology, and this article points out it will be awhile before reasonably-sized (such as 32 inchers) sets are produced in quantity - think four years. Going in the other direction in terms of size, here's a piece on DTV for mobile devices (not portables, we're talking handheld devices here). Finally, a retired professor is suing a huge number of companies for patent infringement concerning LEDs and laser diodes. This could be interesting!

That's all for now!