Four Months and Counting: What's Changed?
Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than four months until the "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is currently scheduled to cease. This is the 31st of 34 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players in this story (it used to be 35, but I will be doing more-frequent updates during the last month). 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 9/18 and 10/17 (with the occasional exception of a later story that just can't wait until next time). Major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE, Broadcasting & Cable, TV Newsday and TVPredictions.com.
THE PUBLIC - With less than four months to go, what is the state of public awareness and preparation? According to Neilsen, if you add in secondary TVs in homes where the primary set is covered (digital set, cable/satellite, converter), one in five homes have sets that are not ready for the changeover. But if you ask Leichtman Research, that number is more like one in three (34% to be specific). One of the ways to deal with that situation is to buy a digital TV, which makes the looming recession a particularly bad piece of timing (at present, opinions are mixed concerning the ability of HDTV sales to hold up in the face of economic woes). Good news for lower-end SDTVs, I guess.
None of this stops the clock from ticking. One market (Wilmington, NC) has converted already (as well as these two stations in Maine), and now we hear about an entire state (Hawai'i) that will be transitioning a month early. In addition, one station (WZMY, the "Boston" - actually southern New Hampshire - affiliate of the MyTV network) will be going on Dec 1st. There was also a "soft test" in New York City on October 28th (more on that next time). We'll see if some of the lessons of Wilmington (including the need for people to get their converters set up and tested before the actual transition, and the willingness to upgrade their antennas if necessary) have been learned, or if some new lessons are in store.
Actually, Wilmington's experience seems to be the inspiration for a new piece of proposed legislation, which is being referred to as a "nightlight bill". You see, in Wilmington the analog transmitters didn't actually shut off on September 8th; they remained on for several weeks with a message letting viewers know what they would have to do to get DTV. These bills would allow analog stations to remain on the air to broadcast DTV and emergency info until March 3rd, and have the support of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). They are, however, considered something of a longshot to pass (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration opposes the legislation, fearing that changes now would only confuse people).
As you might guess, various parties are continuing their public-education efforts. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has produced this video, although I have no idea how they intend to get it in front of the public. Something that hasn't been done previously was to use a NASCAR driver to promote the transition - David Gilliand has been paid $350,000 by the FCC to promote the transition via messages on his racing gear and the hood of his #38 car. Unfortunately, the Digital Transition Ford crashed the first time out, which I'm sure makes the FCC glad that it's continuing in a more traditional vein by purchasing $1M worth of advertising space in AARP publications. Unfortunately, the transition is also giving broadcasters and cable operators an opportunity to engage in a disappointing slap-fight over who is doing their part in educating (or miseducating) the public. There's also the FCC's ongoing roadshow through various "at risk" areas, which gave rise recently to a conversation between FCC commissioners to discuss what they've learned from their visits (as well as the lessons of Wilmington).
One special situation that members of Congress have drawn attention to with calls for greater educational efforts is reception near the Mexican border, where viewers can get both US and Mexican programming. An earlier attempt to pass legislation allowing stations 50 miles from the US/Mexican border to continue broadcasting in analog for five more years failed when the House failed to take up the idea (which the Senate had passed). Hmmm, this makes me wonder what will happen on our northern border. Reception in general has also attracted the notice of Congress, with Reps. Dingell and Markey (who have a track record when it comes to taking a leading role in expressing concerns on DTV issues) and a number of their fellow members of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Internet warning broadcasters and officials about the need to add antenna info to the existing educational campaigns. Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has also weighed in on the matter. So even though The Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) is still debating this issue with the authors of the Centris reception study that I've noted here a couple of times, Chairman Martin has gone on record to say that up to 15% of stations may end up with a smaller digital coverage area than their old analog one, and placed an item on the November 4th FCC open meeting agenda that would allow broadcasters to use additional low-power transmitters to extend coverage to match or exceed the prior analog footprint.
GOVERNMENT - As a species, we human beings tend towards procrastination. Which could cause a few complications if, as FCC Chairman Kevin Martin fears, the coupon program runs out of money (seems that the number of requests from the Wilmington area was far more than the Neilsen estimates on which the program organizers have based their national demand projections) soon before The Day. Add to this the fact that the head of that agency (the aforementioned National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA) has ruled out the reissuance of expired coupons. Instead, they will move some of the expired-coupon money to administrative costs, freeing up more of their budget for additional coupons (but only for new requests). I recently saw a local news report that reported with appropriate levels of shock and outrage the fact that your coupons could actually expire! Don't ask me what they thought the date on each coupon meant. Nevertheless, expired coupons are now up to more than 9.8 million (as of 10/22), about 32.8% of the slightly more than 30 million issued to date, according to the program's statistics page. That compares to 31.5% on 9/18 and 30.3% on 8/20.
What happens if they do run out of coupons just as a huge wave of procrastinators finally gets around to asking for them? Well, NTIA head Meredith Attwell Baker has an idea - broadcasters should stock up on the boxes and give them away. Something like that might just prove to be necessary in the end, but I'd love to hear what someone who just paid full price for a box because their coupons expired has to say if that particular solution is adopted.
One positive development - battery-powered converter boxes (for all those portable sets out there) are finally coming to market, and here's a review of one from Winegard (link via Engadget HD).
Something I missed when it originally happened - apparently a block of analog TV bandwidth did not get auctioned off (bids weren't high enough) in the spectrum auction held earlier this year, and now they have to try again. Speaking of spectrum, we still have the controversy over devices designed to use the "white spaces" between frequency bands (namely, will they interfere with intended uses of the spectrum?). Despite earlier FCC tests in which devices of this type (designed for wireless broadband) demonstrated the potential to cause interference to both broadcasts and wireless microphones, the FCC is now considering allowing them to operate as long as they can communicate with a database that will list broadcast frequencies they must avoid, much to the chagrin of broadcast advocates such as The Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) (who believe that this will cause massive interference. This will be decided on November 4th. If it goes forward, expect to see a host of new devices within a year.
Finally, one other matter attracted the attention of government recently. One is the carriage status of low-power stations, which are not covered by the transition mandate, and which will not be receivable by those without an analog tuner. Chairman Martin's plan to force cable companies to include them under "must-carry" rules had to be shelved due to lack of support from his fellow commissioners. An amended proposal was passed that opened an inquiry into the issue, and established a hard date of 2012 for LP stations to switch to digital.
BROADCASTING - In general, the main trends of the last few months are continuing. I did notice however, that there were a few less stories dealing with new local HD newscasts (and here again is a sample) at a time when I would expect these to be accelerating. You wonder if the economy might have something to do with this. The subject was discussed at the recent HD World conference, and a number of panelists definitely seem to be contemplating a go-slower approach. New local HD is not the only thing affected; the credit crunch poses challenges for broadcast operations in general.
The spread of HD programming in other areas continued as well; examples included the daytime edition of The Price Is Right and every LA Lakers game of the 2008-2009 season. A bit more info on conversions of the recent past can be found here (concerning Survivor) and here (concerning Entertainment Tonight).
Just a couple of other notes here. A lot of people were relieved to hear that NBC's bit-stealing Weather Plus subchannel was going away. The joy, alas, was premature, as another digital-but-not-HD subchannel (this one for sports) is taking its place. Lastly, you might be interested in this interview with John McClosky, PBS's chief technology officer, discussing PBS's transition experience and plans.
PROGRAM PROVIDERS - This is another section that has a ring of familiarity about it. Once again, Verizon FiOS has been the big player in HD channel additions, adding over 50 new channels in places like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, PA, as well as other locations in Texas, Florida, California and Indiana. Compared to that, everything else is an afterthought, although there were also double-digit additions by Time Warner Cable(NY, Ohio), Comcast (Indiana), Insight (Kentucky), RCN (Illinois) and a number of others, plus the usual scattering of smaller additions by various systems.
As always, various companies were doing various things to make room for these channels. One of those things has been Switched Digital Video (which sends you only what you're watching down the wire, not the entire system). This has caused problems for TiVo and CableCARD users, but both got some good news recently. First, the FCC is proposing to enforce their requirement to support third-party CableCARD devices by levying fines (in this case, on Time Warner Cable and Cox). Good news for TiVo users in particular comes in the form of letters that Comcast has been sending to let them know that the oft-discussed Tuning Adapter (which, naturally, will adapt TiVo tuners so as to be able see channels delivered via SDV) is now available. TWC will provide these by years' end. Others cut analog, like RCN, which is adding the D.C. area to its "Project Analog Crush", which has been or is in the process of eliminating analog in Boston, New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia. Others, like AT&T, bank on improved compression technologies such as MPEG-4. Of course, nothing says you can't do a bit of this and a bit of that, as this interview with Charter CTO Marwan Fawaz shows.
While providing more HD is key to staying competitive, that's not the only way providers are trying to accomplish that goal. Comcast, for instance, has a ready-made solution for all the analog TV owners who may decide that sticking with over-the-air reception is too much of a hassle, what with converter boxes, coupons and the possible need to upgrade their antenna - they've introduced an offer for $10-a-month basic cable, or free if combined with phone or internet, good for a year. "Basic Cable" will be defined as 20-30 channels, depending on location. Meanwhile, AT&T is focusing on its Total Home DVR service (which gives you the ability to record and watch multiple streams simultaneously on up to seven connected TVs), expanding in late September to four new cities, and then in early October to Connecticut.
HD NETWORKS - As was the case two months ago, the only HD channel launches I found mentions of were overseas versions of domestic networks. So, who is spreading their influence overseas? On October 1st, National Geographic continues their worldwide rollout by debuting in Russia, while History comes to Japan.
But the future is looking better, as we do have a few domestic announcements of forthcoming channels. Dec 8th will be a big day for Comcast, as five of the networks they own (E!, Style, G4, The Golf Channel and Versus) get their own HD channels (Golf and Versus have been sharing one HD channel up until now). And despite the experience of HD niche channels such the various VOOM offerings, there are still a few companies willing to explore that territory, companies like Entertainment Studios, which sometime later this year will debut Cars.TV, Pets.TV, Comedy.TV, MyDestination.TV, ES.TV and Recipe.TV. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory, except ES.TV, which is an entertainment network. They'll all be debuting on FiOS. Another shopping network (Jewelry TV) is also going HD sometime soon.
New networks is especially good news considering that we are about to lose one of the pioneers. After a lot of speculation, iN DEMAND confirmed that MOJO (formerly INHD) is going away sometime around Dec 1st (which happens to be the day that our local Comcast system is dropping it), though they seem to have plans to keep some of the library up on VOD. There is some hope for fans of the programming; in response to a query from Engadget HD, iN DEMAND states that some of the shows are looking for new homes. Hmmm, maybe London Live would make a good fit for Palladia, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be interested in seeing how the new economic environment has affected the Wall Street Warriors.
Questions were also raised about the previously-announced, yet-unnamed new premium channel from Viacom, the one that's supposed to start off with the three studios (Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate) that recently decided to ditch Showtime. One of the questions is whether they will actually be a premium channel, or just go the digital cable route. With tight budgets all around, that might be a good idea (but not if it means commercials in the middle of my movies). That's assuming this channel debuts at all, which the article casts some doubt on.
That's all I have for now!