Sunday, September 28, 2008

Five Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than five months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is currently scheduled to cease. This is the 30th 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 (starting last time). For more on the reasons why, see my post regarding focus.

That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 8/18 and 9/17 (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

THE PUBLIC - The first major test of the public's reaction to the end of analog broadcasting has now come and gone - the Wilmington, NC transition is in the books as of September 8th. While it was an overall success, there were some problems. Most of these were experienced by people who couldn't figure out how to operate their converter boxes, but there were reception problems as well. There were enough of these calls to suggest some necessary changes to the existing message we get from all those PSAs we've been seeing since April.

I've been covering the Wilmington story all month, and if you'd like to see how things looked beforehand, you can check my posts from August 18th, August 25th, September 1st and the morning of September 8th. Post-transition reports (including information on the various reported problems) are available from later on September 8th, September 9th and September 11th. I also did a special post on September 21st concerning the lessons of Wilmington. To briefly summarize the most important of those lessons, I think it's important for the message getting out to the public to emphasize that digital broadcasting is already here (if I wasn't paying attention to this stuff, I'm not sure I'd understand that from the spots I've seen), and that it's important for people who need them to get and test their boxes right now so that they will be ready for Feb 17th when it arrives in less than five months.

I think it's just as important to let people know that they may have to upgrade their antennas (especially since we're talking about a lot of low-income people who may need time to set aside the extra money). This part of the message is already starting to get out - here in Boston, one of our local stations ran a news story about the lousy reception some are getting from their boxes, which included an interview with the author of the Centris reception study I reported on back in February (according to the study, Boston is one of the areas most likely to be affected by this). It's true that there are materials available at the FCC's site that deal with both of these points, but the best of these materials are much longer than a typical PSA, so I don't know if they'll be seen by the larger public.

One of the conclusions I took from the Wilmington experience concerns the uselessness of very short tests - Wilmington stations ran both one-minute and five-minute tests, neither of which gave any indication of the volume of calls (1200 to the FCC alone in the first two days) that the real thing would generate. Now I'm thinking that this may be a result of the extraordinary level of saturation coverage in Wilmington, since a one-minute test by a dozen Milwaukee stations (that either shut off their signals or ran crawls and graphics) received 3000 calls. So perhaps the one-minute test that 40 stations in 10 different Pennsylvania cities have scheduled for November 17th, plus the wider test (I don't know how long these will be for) planned for mid-late October in six cities (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Hartford) might actually tell us something useful.

As far as overall transition awareness goes, it continues to grow (in the most basic sense of knowing that there is one coming) with a new Consumer Electronics Association study reporting that awareness has grown 12 percent (to 86 percent) since the beginning of this year. The study also reports that 37 percent of antenna-using households intend to apply for a coupon in the next year (32 percent have already ordered), and that 21 percent aren't going to order (new digital set, or new customers for cable/satellite?). Retail seems to be picking up the pace of consumer education, with Best Buy and Circuit City initiating new programs. Speaking of consumer education, one of the main concerns that has been expressed in this area has been regarding the challenges involved in getting the message out to non-English speakers. This Multichannel News article deals with efforts to spread the word in San Francisco's Chinatown.

In the related area of HDTV adoption, a recent Fact Check study claims that HDTVs are now in 46 percent of US households.

GOVERNMENT - Now that their extensive handholding of the Wilmington area is over, there are two main government initiatives related to the transition, the ongoing converter box program, and the FCC's roadshow of appearances in 81 "at risk" TV markets (which will include Boston sometime next year) that I mentioned last time. According to this schedule, a fair number of these events have already taken place, like the one in Fairbanks, Alaska which, according to its local newspaper, leads the nation in homes relying on analog TV. As focused as the FCC has been on the transition, some feel they could do better, as key senators are urging FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to spend more time on that and less on his battles with the cable industry over matters such as a la carte.

Regarding the converter box program, the latest look at the statistics page tracking the progress of the digital converter box program reports that as of 9/18 about 8.2 million of the almost 26 million issued coupons have expired, about 31.5% of the total. Last time, the 8/20 figures had an expired rate of 30.3%, but that bump up is much smaller than the one that preceded it (about 10%). Still, that's a lot of expired coupons, and they're not all because people changed their minds). I've been looking for developments relating to the possible re-issuance of coupons (or extension of their expiration dates) for some time now and all I have so far is the fact that two Iowa senators want to see this happen for their constituents that were affected by recent severe weather. But I'm not sure how far they're going to get with this - according to this Broadcasting & Cable article, existing program funds may only go through the end of January, not good news for people who like to wait. And that's not counting any kind of reissuance. Better news for the cash-strapped comes from Dish, who are finally selling that $40 (effectively free with coupon) box we've been hearing about for quite some time now. Just don't wait until January!

Here's something I didn't know before - this whole converter box thing has happened before, back in the 50s when it was necessary to adapt VHF-only TVs to receive all those newfangled UHF channels. Anybody out there old enough to have had one of those in their house? (I have a very dim memory of one old set that might have needed one, but I was too young to know if the box on top of the TV was just an antenna or something else).

One more item before we move on to the next section. If your provider was covered under the recent FCC order exempting small, independent providers from the dual analog/digital must carry requirements, you may be relieved that PBS and the APTS (Association of Public Television Stations) have signed a carriage deal with the American Cable Association (which happens to represent small, independent providers) for all their digital programmming.

BROADCASTING - The last piece in the nightly network news puzzle fell into place on August 25th, as ABC debuted World News Tonight and Nightline in HD (although at least my local station seems to be showing it in SD on the weekend). On the local level, while I didn't see quite as many stories about new local HD newscasts as I did last time (10 now, 15 then), that's still well ahead of the pace I reported on in June and July - as always, here's a few examples. I expect that pace to pick up even further soon - as more and more markets get their 1st or 2nd or even 3rd or fourth HD newscasts, the pressure on the laggards should increase substantially. Here in Boston the pressure is on the CBS and FOX affiliates, with CBS affiliate WBZ continuing its slow march to HD news (link via pnkflyd51 at AVS Forum). No word yet on what Fox affiliate WFXT has planned, but they may soon be the last non-HD newscast (other than indie WSBK/TV38, who have only a couple of syndicated shows in their HD lineup). On the other end of the local HD spectrum from TV38 is WHDO in Orlando, who broadcast locally-originated HD 24 hours a day.

There was other new HD as well. CBS converted 60 Minutes over just in time for their special candidate interview episode. The syndication scene is really starting to pick up now, with Oprah, Ellen, Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight and The Insider all debuting their HD versions on September 8th (the same day as Wilmington's transition). You can see a tour of the new ET set here. It wasn't so long ago that there was only a few syndicated HD shows, which is about where kids' programming is now. And while it's on a basic cable network (TBS), I should add that Seinfeld has been converted (it was shot on film, so it has the necessary resolution to benefit from the process) to HD. The downside of that is that they elected to go with cropped (not stretched, thankfully) widescreen, rather than the original 4:3 aspect ratio. But even with all of this new programming, there are still some holdouts, such as reality shows like The Amazing Race.

We'll close this section by taking a look at the future of broadcasting, the next step beyond HD, NHK's SuperVision, which was demonstrated recently.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - In the evolving "arms race" to expand HD channel lineups, the most notable player lately has been Verizon, which has been radically expanding its lineups, as when they added 55 channels in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, bringing the total up to 85 (they just eliminated analog in Texas, so expect similar moves there soon). The best any competitor was able to muster was Comcast, adding 15 channels to its Chicago market, which freed up space by eliminating most analog some time ago (these adds bring the total up to 54). Comcast has also split the Boston market into two distinct segments, with the City of Boston proper and neighboring Brookline eliminating analog for Extended Basic and adding about 20 channels over the last couple of months that are not available to the rest of us in Greater Boston. They also revealed that Detroit is next in line for analog reclamation, though I'm not sure whether they are using the upcoming DTAs for that purpose. Comcast and Verizon aren't the only ones cutting analog, so is RCN, which is extending its analog-reclamation project to NYC (which will enable it to offer 75 channels there) as well as Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Of course, there are other ways to save bandwidth; Time Warner continues to roll out Switched Digital Video (which sends you only the channel you are watching, not the whole lineup) and Dish is switching to MPEG-4 compression.

As important as HD capacity is, there are other areas in which providers continue to compete. For instance, Comcast and Time Warner will be using some of their recovered bandwidth to implement DOCSIS 3.0 internet service (you might remember that we mentioned Charter and Cablevision's DOCSIS plans last time). TiVo service is another way that some providers hope to differentiate themselves from their competitors (Comcast is expanding service and DirecTV is actually getting back together with TiVo to design a new HD DVR for launch in the second half of next year). AT&T's U-Verse service also has a DVR initiative - Total Home DVR, which claims the ability to record four channels (two in HD) and watch four others (three in HD) at the same time - (the second part obviously assumes more than one TV hooked up to the service). AT&T is also expanding its own HD VOD service. And one more thing Comcast has done that will please many long-suffering viewers - they've finally signed HDNet (rollout schedule unknown as yet).

HD NETWORKS - Despite all the expansion of existing HD channel space, the process of channel launches and announcements still is much slower than I would have expected. Last time, the only channel launches I could find were overseas! It's a little bit better this time, but not by that much, as we do have one domestic launch to report - the college sports channel ESPNU. You can see some interesting comments from ESPN's Bryan Burns on their overall experience with HD and their opinion on HD's future (both in general and regarding their own plans) here. Otherwise, the action continues to be overseas, with MTV Networks International launching MTVNHD, which appears to be a hybrid of the Palladia live-performance library, some original programming and a weekend-morning kids' block (??) from Viacom stablemate Nickelodeon. Meanwhile, France's Numericable is adding five networks (including a concert channel and a Dutch cultural network).

It's a similar situation in the area of announcements for forthcoming channels; domestically, we have the MLB Network launching January 1st, and internationally we have announcements for Norway's first domestically-produced HD channel, plus seven new British channels from Sky TV, including the reality-themed Real Lives. I've covered previous announcements concerning Viacom's forthcoming channel that will feature programming from Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate - that channel now seems to be morphing from a traditional premium channel to a digital-basic channel with a hefty licensing fee. We'll have to see if the providers bite on that one.

I have a few items concerning channels that have launched in recent months. After all their carriage struggles with Comcast, it looks like things are getting much easier for Big 10 Network, which has reached agreement with Mediacom, Cox and Time Warner. And while I've heard little about how they're faring as an HD channel, I thought those relative few of you who have IFC HD might be interested in this interview with IFC's Jennifer Caserta concerning their general programming direction (frustratingly, she doesn't talk about HD at all).

Channels that have been around awhile are making news too. Cinemax (which was one of the very early channels carried on my system) finally became an all-HD service. On the other end of the adoption curve, Bravo just launched their second HD series, Top Design, which joins Shear Genius in their miniscule HD lineup.

One last item, which isn't really about a channel as such, more a block of VOD programming. SiTV is filling an important gap with the first Hispanic-targeted HD VOD programs. They hope to offer an HD feed of their SD channel (which stands out from other Hispanic-audience programming due to its being in English) as early as next year.

That's all I have for now!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What Have We Learned From Wilmington?

Things seem to have settled down in Wilmington, and the area's transition to digital-only reception (again, with the exception of the PBS affiliate and one of the two area low-power stations) is being deemed a success by both Multichannel News and TV Week. And it does look as though most of the problems I've been reporting on have been solved, since I'm not seeing anything in the local Wilmington media about people getting together to complain. People who were having problems operating their converters have probably figured them out by now, and the smaller number (estimated by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin at five percent nationwide) who had reception problems are likely looking into better antennas, switching to cable/satellite or doing without a station or two.

But before we breath a sign of relief and go on as though everything is completely on track for the national transition come February, it would be useful to consider again the fact that Wilmington was something of a special case (both in the amount of government/industry handholding provided and in the good-for-reception flatness of the area), and to realize that those problems that did arise there could well be worse in many areas nationwide.

That said, here are four things I think we should remember going forward.

1) If you saturate a market long enough and intensely enough, people do get the message. Very few of the calls that poured into hotlines in Wilmington were from people who hadn't heard about the transition, instead they were from people who had taken the recommended actions but did not get the results they had expected.

2) One-minute tests are useless, and five-minute tests aren't much better. Wilmington's one-minute shutoff on August 19th resulted in zero hotline calls, and the five-minute followup on September 2nd got about 10. The real thing resulted in 1200 calls (over a two-day period) to the FCC alone, and jammed local call centers and TV station switchboards as well. Advance tests are a good idea, but they need to be much longer.

3) People should know that digital is here today. I've seen a number of spots that are worded in such a way that you would think that digital broadcasting would begin on transition day. Spots should point out the benefits of obtaining converters now.

4) This is the hard part - people have to be told that they will need to do more than just plug the new boxes in. Most of the calls that came in were because of things that might seem very simple and obvious to tech-savvy types (such as scanning to locate signals) but were not so obvious to the tech-averse. And as noted before, that's not the only thing people might have to do - many will have to do some fiddling with their existing antennas (shades of the 50s!) and some will actually need to replace said antennas with more advanced (or rooftop) models. Given that many people who depend on over-the-air reception do so for budgetary reasons, this is an unfortunate fact that they need to be made aware of well in advance.

I know that PSAs need to be simple and concise in order to get through to people, but this information has to be in there in some fashion. Perhaps the networks should get together and schedule a national prime-time DTV infomercial a couple of months ahead of time (I'm picking this time because of the approximately six weeks that coupons have been taking to arrive - people will need to know at that point that time is running out).

One more little bit of news to close this story out. One of the on-site bloggers that I had referenced on September 8th DeeNice at the Digital Dynamo site was interviewed on that day by Wilmington ABC affiliate WWAY - here's the video.

I will be keeping my ears open for awhile, just in case some of those who have continuing problems with their reception decide to do something more than simply adapt to the inevitable, though that doesn't seem that likely at the moment. But now it's past the 17th again, so it's time to start work on my next monthly national update, "Five Months and Counting". I'm late starting, but I still expect to get it out by the end of the month. Look for it!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? Where Things Stand

Nothing too dramatic has happened in the last couple of days, but we do have more information about the problems people were calling up about. First, this article from Broadcasting & Cable reveals that were many more calls than previously mentioned, almost 800 to the FCC hotline alone the first day. Local hotlines were also busy, as this Multichannel News story shows. But (as was also mentioned previously) the vast majority of these people had not been blindsided by unexpected change. They had gone ahead and done what the avalanche of information that they had been seeing everywhere told them to do, and it wasn't working According to the Multichannel News piece, a lot of calls to the local hotlines were due to users failing to program their new converter boxes by scanning for channels.

These were for the most part solvable problems, which is probably why the local media don't seem to be reporting any growing public outrage or calls to turn back the clock (but I'll keep checking on that for a while yet). The local Wilmington government is doing what it can, including using firefighters to help residents install their boxes correctly (linked article includes video). Part of the problem can be traced to the public education campaigns themselves -as Jim Heartney commented (in the comments section of my previous post),:
... many consumers didn't realize that digital was already available, so they waited until the last minute to try out their converters.. [this] was caused by many of the awareness spots saying things along the lines of "digital is coming" rather than the more accurate and helpful "digital is here right now." Many of the spots I've seen had this problem. One that didn't was one I saw on PBS (featuring the "This Old House" guys) that correctly presented all the most important information and didn't just punt to a website, unlike some of the other spots that ran on commercial TV stations.

But one problem showed up that was not as easily solvable - bad reception. The Broadcasting & Cable piece I referenced at the beginning of this post showed that the FCC hotline was only able to resolve a small number of reception-related problems, leaving a lot of people on the losing end of this transition. Another thing the article mentioned was that the digital signal from WECT (ironically, the station that had led the way in local coverage of the transition) does not seem to go as far as the old analog signal. Jim Heartney again:

The reception problems have always struck me as being a more difficult area to address than the converter box issue. Reception will vary by location, and plenty of locations (my house, for example) get mediocre digital reception off rabbit ears. Further, some rabbit ears work better than others (I had widely varying results with two different rabbit ear setups I tried here). Dealing with that takes time, as consumers will need to try different things to pull in good signal. If more of the affected people were aware that they can try out their converters right now and get their issues dealt with in advance of the deadline, we'd have much less hassle than if large numbers think they have to wait till February to try digital out.

The conclusion I reach from reading these two articles is that a fair number of residents are going to have to invest in better antennas, an additional cost that none of the information being widely disseminated even hints at. Given that over-the-air viewing is the only way many low-income people can afford the most affordable form of entertainment that's available to them, that's not particularly good news. Neither is the fact that the Wilmington area is geographically flat, which means that reception problems are likely to be more severe in many other areas.

One more note to wrap this up. While there hasn't been a huge amount of mass-media coverage of this story in this country (other than that NBC Nightly News story, one group of people do seem to be paying attention - the Japanese, who have their own transition coming up in a few years and who had crews in town to film the switchoff ceremony, as reported here and here (this also has video). Let's hope they stuck around long to take note of some of these problems.

I will do at least one more post on this topic between now and my next monthly update, which will contain any additional developments as well my thoughts on what has been learned from Wilmington's experience.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? More Reports

The reports are starting to come in now, and at least one national TV news outlet recognized the importance of this story (unlike the cable news networks I was watching earlier today) - here's the clip from NBC Nightly News. That clip finished by telling the audience that things had gone smoothly, which was more or less true.

The "less" part was the greater than expected number of phone calls that came in to various call centers. The general impression I get from the stories I saw here and here and here (the comments section specifically) was that of converter box problems (mostly reception) much more than unawareness of the change, which was something I alluded to in my first post today.

We should know more about the extent of that situation (and what is needed to fix it) in the next couple of days, so I'll see you then.

Monday, September 08, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? First Post-Switchover Reports

Well, the switch has been flipped. According to Broadcasting & Cable, it was pulled by both FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo. The switch looked like a giant light switch, and was symbolic (although it would have been pretty cool if it had actually been hooked up to something). A picture of the switch can be seen in this story just filed by the local paper, StarNews.

Looking at other local media, so far WILM has posted a story (using the news services of sister station WRAL in Raleigh). As far as national TV news is concerned, this appears to be a non-story. Considering how important the overall transition story is, I actually am a little surprised by that. Perhaps they're waiting to see if something dramatic happens.

There's also another blogger (Carol Ingley, representing Multichannel News) on the scene. So far neither her or DeeNice at Digital Dynamo have posted today, so I look forward to their first-person accounts.

The real story is in the number of people affected by the change, and I don't expect to see much on that for at least a few hours, if then. I'll be back at least once more later today.

UPDATE 2:33 PM - Just about a minute after posting the above, I saw a Wilmington-related crawl at the bottom of the screen on CNN. No idea whether an actual story will follow.

Press Conference Now!!

This may only be useful for a few minutes,but here's live video coverage of the ceremony:


Well, now it's just people wandering around. Sorry, I found out about the Wilmington government access channel at literally the last minute. Perhaps they'll have some follow-up coverage.

UPDATE 1:08 PM: Kevin Martin is talking about converter boxes at the moment.

What's Up In Wilmington? Today's The Day!

Well, it's finally September 8th, which means that at noontime today FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin will throw a switch in Wilmington, NC, at which point the five counties which comprise the Wilmington market transition to digital-only broadcast TV (other than the PBS affiliate and one of the two area low-power stations), five months ahead of the rest of the U.S.A.

While the last few days saw this event draw attention as far away as Australia, there was also some speculation that Tropical Storm Hanna might cause a delay in the proceedings. However, Hanna turned out to have a relatively minor effect on the area, and the FCC gave the final go-ahead on Sunday morning.

So now it's just a matter of waiting to see what happens. As mentioned last time, there was another, longer "soft test" of the switchoff last Tuesday, and according to Broadcast Engineering magazine, the info line for affected analog viewers logged "about 10" calls (up from zero for the earlier one-minute test). Local station WECT also ran a piece on the receptionist who will be dealing with any upset watchers when the switchoff happens in a couple of hours. One problem noted - today's piece on the TV Predictions site mentions that there have been complaints that the converter boxes don't pick up all the local stations. Given that the Wilmington area is flatter than most and should be expected to have better reception, this could be significant for the country as a whole (a lot of new antennas may need to be factored into peoples' budgets).

I'll be monitoring various news sources (industry and otherwise) throughout the day today, and expect to put up at least a couple more posts. So far this morning, this doesn't look like it's going to be a big mass media story. My morning Boston Globe doesn't have anything, and I don't see any new stories on the New York Times or CNN websites. The Los Angeles Times did run two stories this week, and both the Washington Post and Fox News sites ran this Associated Press story from last Friday (there was also a blog entry last Wednesday at U.S. News & World Report). I've also been flipping around the various news shows this morning, and nothing so far.

I'll keep watching!

P.S. There is one first-hand source you might want to check out - DeeNice at the Digital Dynamo blog is on-site, and I'll be checking that source as well.

P.P.S. BTW, this is my 100th post, for what it's worth.

Monday, September 01, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? It's Now Just ONE WEEK to the Transition Test.

Today is September 1st, which means that there are seven days remaining until the Wilmington, N.C. area becomes the first TV market in the country to transition to digital-only broadcast TV (other than the PBS affiliate and one low-power station), five months ahead of the rest of the U.S.A.

I led off last time by with a report of the "soft test" that took place on Tuesday the 19th, in which four of the five participating stations shut off their analog signals for 60 seconds, and how it seemed to have gone off without a hitch. However, as the person who left a comment on my two-weeks-out report pointed out, one-minute tests can be missed quite easily. So it's not too surprising that they are trying this again tomorrow (September 2nd), this time for five minutes. I still wonder whether this is enough time, but at least the people who do see this one will have time to write down the number of the info line (which received no calls last time).

Another story from last time concerned station WECT's Digital Television Expo, which was held this last Thursday. This story from WECT's web site contains a video clip taken at the show. One product unveiled at the expo was a battery-powered converter box, which could make things a bit easier for owners of portable TVs.

Questions about the length of the soft test aside, it still seems that everyone involved is doing everything they can to make sure that things go smoothly. And as I've mentioned before, that may lead to some complacency in other areas that won't be getting that kind of hand-holding. In addition, it's been pointed out that Wilmington has a low percentage of over-the-air viewers. This Broadcasting & Cable piece goes into these concerns in more detail. One interesting piece of information in the article - Wilmington was picked because it was the only area to volunteer out of the small number of markets deemed transition-ready by the FCC.

Of course, this doesn't mean that there's no chance of problems. The WECT story mentioned above listed some new poll numbers, and while 97% of area viewers are aware of the transition, the percentage who knew the actual date (with two weeks to go) was 77%. Broadcasting & Cable (who really seem to have taken the lead in coverage here) points out that if you apply that percentage to the estimated 14,000 over-the-air viewers (slightly higher than earlier estimates), you get about 3,200 households that could be taken by surprise. Hopefully they were among those who obtained the approximately 20,000 coupons that have been mailed to area residents.

One other thing that could (but probably won't) throw a temporary monkey wrench in the works - the FCC has told broadcasters that they can delay the switch if a hurricane threatens. From what I'm seeing, the area could see some effects from Tropical Storm Hanna Friday and Saturday, but that should be past by Monday at noon.

I'm planning to take September 8th off work, so I'll be checking various news sources to see what they report during the day (I'll do another recap early on to cover the news between now and then). See you then!