Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Six Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than six months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is scheduled to cease. This is the 29th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players 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). However, you'll notice that I have tightened the focus this time (and going forward), including dropping a whole section (MANUFACTURERS). For more on the reasons why, see my post regarding focus. I hope this results in updates that are easier to fit into your reading time.

That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 7/18 and 8/17 (with the occasional exception of a later story that just can't wait until next time). As is usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE, Broadcasting & Cable and TVPredictions.com.

THE PUBLIC - It's now less than two weeks until noon on September 8th, when the first TV market (the Wilmington, N.C. area) transitions to digital-only broadcast TV (other than the PBS affiliate and one low-power station), five months ahead of everyone else. So what is the state of public awareness in Wilmington? Pretty good, it seems. As I pointed out in my August 8th Wilmington recap, Wilmington has (not surprisingly) been getting a lot of special attention from the FCC and others as well. More details on the accelerating FCC involvement can be found in this Multichannel News article. An example of the involvement of other parties is this converter-box giveaway sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association to help nursing home residents (who don't qualify for coupons, as nursing homes are not "households" under the rules of the converter-box program). It looks like everything is being done to make sure there are no problems (which raises some questions as to Wilmington's value as a predictor of what will happen in all the places where everything possible isn't being done). One thing they are doing which actually is a great idea - instead of completely turning off their analog transmitters, they will instead (for several weeks) be running an information slide to explain what has happened and how viewers can get DTV. Having that everywhere, even for a shorter time, could considerably lower the potential for confusion on The Day. Participating stations also took part in a one-minute test on August 19th, whiich appears to have gone off without a hitch.

When evaluating the results, they might want to take into account a similar test recently conducted by KING in Seattle (link via Engadget HD). In addition to the people who could be expected to get a screenful of snow (analog TV owners with over-the-air reception), viewers with cable or satellite hooked up to their analog sets also were affected. The latter will be provided a downconverted digital signal by their provider after the switchover, so the interruption was misleading. A follow-up test on sister station KONG (not a joke, honest) has been put off for now.

As to the overall transition, a new survey from the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) shows that while the percentage of OTA (over-the-air) viewers intending to buy a new TV or converter has climbed dramatically in the last couple of years (62 percent versus 28 percent in November '06), most have not done so. Let's hope they factor in the six weeks or so it takes for the coupons to arrive!

On the Public Service Announcement front, game-show legend Bob Barker has been enlisted for two spots, including a special one for the Wilmington area.

One thing the transition seems to be doing is helping TV sales weather the recession.

GOVERNMENT - In the last section, we mentioned the FCC's significant presence in the Wilmington area in prepartion for their early switchover. Of course, not everyone is going to get the kind of intense attention Wilmington has been getting lately. However, FCC Commissioners will be holding public events (one per market, I'm thinking) in 81 markets deemed to "most at risk" (the linked article has the schedule for the first 23 events). Not sure what, if anything, will be done for the other 100-some markets.

This time last month, the statistics page tracking the progress of the digital converter box program reported that as of 7/23 about 4.1 million of the roughly 19.9 million coupons issued so far (or just over 20%) had expired (compared to the almost 6.7 million that had actually been used). Updated figures for 8/20 show almost 7.0 million expired (30.3%) and 8.7 million redeemed (38.0%) out of 22.9 million issued. I've already speculated that the expiration figures might have something to do with retailers preferring to sell new TVs rather than the boxes the customer might have come in looking for, but this TWICE article points to another possible explanation - retailers report that they can't keep up with the "increasingly frantic" demand.

Still no new developments on the issue of reissuing coupons or extending expiration dates, as far as I know.

Meanwhile, the FCC is proposing something designed to help low-powered stations get the cash they need to go digital (voluntarily - they're not covered by the transition, which is why an analog pass-through feature is desirable in converter boxes), namely adding them to the "must-carry" requirements for cable companies. Given bandwidth constraints, you won't be surprised to hear that the cable industry doesn't care for this at all, and is challenging the FCC's authority in the matter. On the other hand, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants to make carriage requirements easier for small systems by exempting them from the "dual must carry" requirements (dual meaning analog and digital).

BROADCASTING - This last month saw a major acceleration in the number of local TV newscasts going HD. I count about 15, too many to list here, so these examples will have to do. I have seen different numbers posted in different places, but all sources now seem to agree that the number of local HD newscasts in HD has reached triple digits. But this is still a small fraction of the total local newscasts - given the tendency of HD newscasts to cluster (we just got a second one in Boston and are expecting a third soon), it's safe to say the majority of the 200-plus TV markets in this country still have none.

The national front saw action too, as CBS debuted a newscast whose first broadcast was marred by audio problems, and ABC (now the last nightly news holdout) announced a September 8 debut for World News with Charles Gibson in HD (but then jumped the gun - the broadcast actually debuted on August 25th).

HD has now been around enough to have covered several Olympics, and every time the coverage becomes more comprehensive. This time out, NBC went beyond the maximum use of their stable of channels (NBC, CNBC, USA and Universal HD) to add two extra channels for soccer and basketball.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The "arms race" to offer more HD channels continues apace. Like last month, there are a number of providers have added 10 or more channels. There was also a triple-digit add as Verizon FiOS debuted in New York City with exactly 100 channels (you can see the list here). DirecTV added 31 not too long after (bringing them up to 130), but when you consider how many of these adds were regional sports networks and PPV slots, the NYC FiOS lineup is still pretty competitive. It was certainly more than competitive with NYC incumbent provider Cablevision, which added 15 channels to bring them up to 60 (still very good for cable just about anywhere else). Verizon also continued to rollout double-digit adds elsewhere, and others who did likewise include Comcast, Charter and Time Warner Cable (TWC).

Dish, meanwhile, has upped the ante by promising 150 national channels by the end of '08, plus 1080p VOD titles and money-saving (if you don't want any SD channels) HD-only packages. Dish CEO Charlie Ergen's thoughts on their HD plans can be seen here. One thing they don't seem to be planning on is a merger with DirectTV, at least if you go by what DirecTV says. Another provider talking up their HD plans is AT&T.

Of course, there are other uses for increased bandwidth, such as faster internet. Charter and Cablevision are preparing for DOCSIS 3.0.

Keeping up with satellite and FiOS is hard enough for large operators, what about the small independents? This topic was explored at the Independent Show (sponsored jointly by the National Cable Television Cooperative and the American Cable Association). One speaker pointed out the importance of letting the audience know that despite the difference in raw channel count their most-wanted shows were in the lineup. Another session dealt with the challenges of co-ordinating with local broadcasters in preparation for the switchover.

HD NETWORKS - While the lineup expansions noted above are adding new eyeballs to many recently-launched channels (channels which had only been seen on satellite until now are finally finding homes on cable and telco lineups), I'm still surprised that there aren't more announcements of new entrants trying to get in on the action. In fact, the few new channel announcements I could find this time out are all overseas! These include an all-classical-music channel launching in Germany, a channel displaying art (from Shaw Cable in Canada) and the first HD channel for the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly enough, these are also entirely new channels. Have all the existing cable channels that want to go HD converted by now? I for one would love to see Turner Classic Movies (which is committed to showing its films in Original Aspect Ratio) in HD, as I feel it would be a perfect fit for the format. Unfortunately, their FAQ states that they have no timetable (as of 3/12/08) for achieving this goal (although they are exploring the possibility).

Let's move on to existing channels. Despite having an actual MTV HD channel (although it's just a placeholder with little or no HD content as yet), I've noticed in discussion threads that many posters still assume that MHD is the HD version of MTV (and have no interest in it for that reason). Perhaps this is why this particular all-music channel is renaming itself to Palladia on September 1st. They'll also be adding a new concert every Saturday and will also show rock movies every Thursday (both at 9 PM) - good news, considering the rerun-heavy nature of their current schedule. Speaking of rerun-heavy channels, Smithsonian (whose library makes MHD/Palladia's look vast in comparison) will also be adding a fair amount of new stuff.

That's all I have for now!


At 2:21 AM, Blogger Jim Heartney said...

retailers report that they can't keep up with the "increasingly frantic" demand.

I remember seeing some advice from some quarters for consumers to wait till closer to the deadline to pick up their converters, advice that seemed foolish to me. It looks as though, as I expected, we'll see a mad rush for converters the nearer Feb. 17 comes. Those who waited may end up regretting it.

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dread that day because i need to buy a new digital TV and i don't quite have the money yet


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