Saturday, December 20, 2008

Two Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than two months until the "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is currently scheduled to cease. This is the 33rd 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 recently tightened the focus. For more on the reasons why, see my post regarding focus.

That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 11/18 and 12/17 (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

THE PUBLIC - Before I start this month's look at public awareness of (and preparedness for) the digital transition, I have to report on the first really big change to the overall plan since the hard date was first announced a few years ago. A bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (Senate) and Rep. Lois Capps (House) (and which passed the Senate as well as the House by unanimous consent), allows stations to use their analog transmitters for DTV education and emergency information for 30 days after Feb. 17th. This idea was introduced during the earlier transition of the Wilmington, NC market and will give those who may not have been paying attention a better idea of what has happened than the screenful of snow they would have otherwise had to interpret. It's currently awaiting President Bush's approval.

So, just how many people haven't been paying attention? Recent surveys show progress, but if you project the last month's progress - from 7.7% completely unready to 7.4%, and 10.7% partially unready (houses that have a mix of ready and unready sets) to 10.3% - and project it forward two months, you can see that we are not getting to zero. The linked article also breaks these numbers down, with the real surprise in the breakdown being that homes where the head of household is over 55 are better prepared than those headed by adults under 35, the opposite of what you'd expect if you went by the stereotype of the technically savvy young vs. the clueless old.

One thing that could bring those numbers down faster is the acceleration of analog-turnoff tests, which seem to be happening all over the country, such as the ones that took place in Sacramento and Dallas on December 4th, plus Buffalo's on Dec 15th, Providence's on Dec. 17th and an ongoing series of weekly two-minute tests in Detroit, plus another ongoing series in West Michigan. What's frustrating is that I'm seeing far more announcements of upcoming tests than the after-the-fact reports that tell us what actually happened (why would the same news outlets do the first and not the second?). A welcome exception was Hartford's Dec 3rd tests, two 30-minute shutoffs that seem far more useful than the one and two-minute tests common elsewhere. Those tests got over 1,700 calls to the toll-free hotline. Even more (4,000) calls were received due to the L.A. area's Dec. 2nd test, and the area has now scheduled two follow-ups on Dec. 17. But I have a story here that says that KMEX (the L.A. Univision affiliate) did their test on Dec 3rd and recorded 3,000 calls - is somebody's date wrong, or did Univision do their test a day later?

Boston's test on Dec 9th was only for two minutes, but repeated three times and was supported by a "DTV Day" campaign in which all local analog feeds featured a crawl that directed viewers to a loop of the 30-minute program Get Ready for DTV running on PBS affiliate WGBH. The film, produced by PBS and featuring Norm Abram and Kevin O'Connor of This Old House plus Maria Hinojosa, can be viewed online here. I've watched it, and it's fairly comprehensive - it features visits to various homes with a mix of TVs (analog and digital) and connections (OTA, cable and satellite) and shows what (if anything) the residents needed to do in each case. All of this was only supposed to be seen if you were watching analog signals over-the-air. From the cable watcher's perspective, I can report that things seem to have worked as planned. I set recordings for the various tests on the analog stations and either received "your set has passed" messages or no test at all (of course, the feed had no knowledge of my TV, just that I was watching the feed intended for cable watchers). Although numbers were still being tabulated at press time, this Broadcasting & Cable article reports a "huge" number of calls.

Please note; the B&C link above also contains details of a 29-state test scheduled for Dec. 17th. As of this writing, I haven't seen any follow up reports on this. If you have experience of any of the tests mentioned above, please leave a comment!

Get Ready for DTV, is not the only educational film out there. Dec 2nd saw the airing of DTV: Are You Ready? on five Lexington, KY stations. And this was not the only new educational effort, either. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (who introduced the previously-mentioned "nightlight" bill), pledges to work on a more comprehensive plan (which carries some weight, seeing as how he will be the new chair of the Senate Commerce Committee). It's been noted that minority and poor communities may be disproportionally affected by the transition, which is presumably why the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF) will be opening seven DTV Assistance Centers in especially "at risk" areas, thanks to a $1.65 million grant they received from the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA). One interesting idea that I don't expect to reach fruition was put forward by a North Carolina college class (which had previously studied the Wilmington transition) - they are asking the FCC to interrupt the SuperBowl with a 30-second PSA. And the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is setting up a national hotline, which they predict will receive two million calls in the five days after Feb. 17th.

Two more things. The Neilsen people have been tracking HDTV household penetration regularly, and their end-of-November figures show that 23.3% of U.S. households now own HDTVs, up from 10% in July of 2007. Finally, I ran across this page which indicates that there is at least some interest out there in delaying the transition altogether (check the comments section for more reports of reception problems).

GOVERNMENT - I've been writing about the DTV-related efforts of the current administration and Congress since I started this blog, but it's important to remember that the transition will actually happen under the incoming administration. So it's good to know that the transition teams have been meeting with the involved parties (broadcast and cable representatives, plus the current administration) to try to insure a co-ordinated effort. Some have objected to this as it involves talking to lobbyists, but I think getting everyone on the same page is just too vital to worry overmuch about that.

The little-reported FCC DTV road trip continues it's 81-city tour of "at risk" areas. Here's a look at what happened in Chicago (with links to other reports on some previous tour stops).

I've mentioned the possibility before that money for the digital-to-analog converter box program could run dry just as demand spikes, and this possibility is why NTIA is now asking for more money. According to the program's statistics page, orders for coupons are accelerating - in the week preceding Dec. 17th, 228,008 coupons per day were requested, as opposed to an average 199,413 per day in the past month. Also, the percentage of expired coupons climbed again (to 32.4%), after seeming to level off last month.

With the "white spaces" issue having been decided last time, there's just a few other stories to talk about in this section. I've mentioned the problem of digital signals that don't reach as far as their old analog versions. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has a plan for this, involving a new DTV translator service to fill in the gaps. The FCC was scheduled to take up the proposal Dec 18, but some non-transition items on the agenda prompted Sen. Rockefeller (busy guy!) and Rep. Henry Waxman to ask that he stick to transition issues for the remainder of his term), after which the meeting was cancelled. Another solution for the reception problem has been introduced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who would like to see those who have lost their broadcast signals because of this get reduced-cost cable service indefinitely, and has introduced legislation to this effect.

BROADCASTING - Most of the transition-related broadcast stories come under the rubric of testing, which you can read about in the PUBLIC section above. But as always, the most meaningful measures of public readiness should be the results of actual permanent transitions, which are also speeding up. Things seem to have gone smoothly for WZMY (a New Hampshire MyTV affiliate serving the Boston DMA) when they transitioned Dec 1st, although a number of posters in the AVS Forum Boston OTA thread claim not to be able to receive the weak digital signal. Speaking of signal problems, antenna troubles may force WFXT-TV (Boston Fox affiliate) to drop their analog signal early. Also transitioning on Dec 1st was KHAS in Hastings, Neb, followed by KCWE in Kansas City, on Dec 15th.

The most significant early transition announced so far is coming up on Jan 15th, as the entire state of Hawai'i goes a month early. From what I can see of the local press, nobody there seems to have made too big a deal over this since the original announcement. However, the FCC has started a Hawai'ian version of its DTV site, which will bear watching.

There is also the continuation of existing trends such as the conversion to HD of local newscasts, which can be tracked at this AVS thread. as well as this post in the Official AVS HDTV Programming Synopsis. In Boston, we have finally seen the long-promised conversion of WBZ (a CBS affiliate), leaving Fox as the only Big Four network affiliate in town without an HD newscast.

There's some other new HD programming as well. The big news here is that Fox is going all-HD across their entire spectrum of networks (broadcast and cable) starting in the first quarter of '09. The syndicated front is moving forward as well, with Regis & Kelly going in January and a new show starring Oprah vet Dr. Mehmet Oz debuting in HD next fall. And here's an example of something not normally seen in HD - an all-digital government access channel.

Last month I mentioned a new area for growth in digital broadcasting, mobile DTV broadcasting to cellphones and other handhelds, specifically the progress in developing related technical standards. That progress continues with ATSC (Advanced Television Standards Committee) advancing its proposed standard to "candidate standard" status, with the hope to have it ratified in the next six months. Meanwhile the mobile equivalent to cable is already underway, with Qualcomm's MediaFLO service planning to expand into vacated spectrum (once the transition is complete) with its multichannel offerings.

The transition poses a number of challenges for broadcasters, including the likelihood that many formerly over-the-air watchers will skip the conversion hassle by signing up for cable or satellite. At least that's what Turner Networks research executive Jack Wakshlag is hoping.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - In the ongoing race among providers to provide the most HD channels to their customers, Verizon's FiOS dominated the last couple of months with their huge expansions (cracking the triple-digit mark previously reserved for satellite), but they've been relatively quiet recently (other than announcing that they have completed their elimination of analog channels), which gives other providers like Time Warner (24 adds in Southern California, 18 in North Texas,14 in Southwest Ohio and 10 in Kansas City), Cox (13 adds in Hampton Roads, VA and 11 in the Gulf coast region) Insight (25 adds in Columbus, OH) and Comcast (12 adds in San Francisco) a chance to catch up a bit.

But the recent event with the most impact on the future of this struggle was the preparations for Comcast's roll-out of the Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA), the device that will eliminate analog Expanded Basic tiers (I had originally thought they would be used to go all-digital, but that doesn't seem to be the plan) and put Comcast back in the HD arms race. This notice posted on AVS shows the eliminations (and later HD additions) scheduled in parts of Oregon for Feb. 11th (on or about), and the Seattle area is following suit around that time. Luckily, these were announced before Dec. 10th, since otherwise they would be covered under the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA)'s just-announced digital migration freeze, which will halt almost all analog-to-digital channel migrations for January and February, allegedly to ease consumer confusion caused by the broadcast transition's taking place around the same time. This decision applies to all major U.S. cable operators, but appears to have been influenced by this FCC investigation into whether Comcast shortchanged analog viewers by the way in which they migrated channels from analog to digital.

HD NETWORKS - Things continue to be slow in this area; this month, we have just a few channel launches, some more info concerning recent announcements and a couple of notes about existing (and recently-existing) channels.

Comcast converted a few of their existing nets (E!, G4 and Style) to HD, and split their Versus/Golf shared HD channel into two full-time nets. Here's a little info on Golf HD's plans. In addition, the African American-targeted TV One launched in HD, with around 20% HD content, slated to expand to 40% by the end of 2010.

Last time I noted the upcoming conversion of three networks from ION Media. ION's Dave Glenn sat down with Multichannel News to talk about the process. And that unnamed Viacom premium channel (that's going to take Paramount, Lionsgate, UA and MGM content away from Showtime) now has a name - Epix, and is scheduled for a fall '09 launch.

Arrivals are especially welcome news when you need something to balance out departures, as the ranks of HD specialist channels are getting noticeably thinner. I didn't get to see the bitter end of MOJO since Comcast in Boston yanked the channel 12 hours before its scheduled sign-off, but up until then it had still made no explicit on-air announcement to its viewers as to what was about to happen (although as I noted last time they did clue in their website visitors). Anyone out there see the real sign off (at noon EST on Dec. 1st)? More shrinkage in the all-HD network ranks is in the works, as the VOOM suite of niche HD channels will be dropped in January by their owner Rainbow Media Holdings (owned by the suite's only carrier, Cablevision), although it appears that there will still be some sort of international operation going forward. Another HD specialist channel had some better news; HDNet showed up in the latest adds for the City of Boston/Brookline area, a harbinger for what may come once Comcast gets its analog reclamaion project farther along. Another departure is that of Discovery's Clint Stinchcomb, the man who got Discovery HD Theater (now just HD Theater) off the ground. HD Theater set a high standard for the emerging medium, and everyone who cares about the potential of true HD is in his debt.

Which is my cue to depart for this month. I'll have a special post sometime in the next couple of weeks detailing my plans for wrapping this blog up.


At 2:48 AM, Anonymous DeeNice, the Digital Dynamo said...

Time is certainly quickly running out. And the story is yet to be told regarding so many underserved individuals who will be left in the dark.
Your countdown is a vital contribution to the DTV Transition. Our grassroots organization has been actively connecting digital converter boxes for seniors in the Washington DC area. Take Care DeeNice


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