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 TVPredictions.com.

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 dtv.gov 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!

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