Friday, November 28, 2008

Three Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than three months until the "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is currently scheduled to cease. This is the 32nd 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 10/18 and 11/17 (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 - With less than three months to go, what is the state of public awareness and preparation? There are two main ways to find out; surveys and tests. Let's start with the former. According to Neilsen, there has been a small amount of progress since the September figures that were reported last time; if you add the households that are completely unready (7.7%) to the 10.7% partially unready (meaning at least one secondary set in a multi-set household) you get 18.4%, down from September's 19.4%. That's only one percentage point of improvement, but at least it was concentrated in the "completely unready" category (last month that was at 8.4%). Considering that this was the most significant improvement in the last six months, we've still got a fair amount of territory to cover. But perhaps part of that is due to people who know what's about to happen but who don't care enough about TV to make the necessary changes to keep getting it. At least that seems to be the conclusion reached by ABI Research, who report that one-fifth of the 15% of over-the-air viewers (that's 3% of all viewers) will allow their TVs to go dark after the switchover. One place where more significant gains have been made is in minority awareness, with Hispanic awareness now at over 90%, and African-American awareness at 86%, according to a survey from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

But as I've said several times before, it's just as important to have the correct information, and there's still a lot of misinformation going around. One such piece that won't directly impact the ability to receive TV after The Day, but may affect viewers' understanding of what they're watching, is the belief that digital equals HD and that all broadcasting will be in HD after the switchover. That's what 29% of viewers think, at least if you go by what Magid Associates says.

There's another, more direct way to assess the state of public readiness, and that's to test it, and new tests are popping up constantly, perhaps faster than I'll be able to report them. The previously-mentioned series of tests spearheaded by ION, NBC Universal, Telemundo and the Association of Public Television Stations (but involving others as well) kicked off in New York City on Oct 28th (for two minutes). According to this Crave article (link courtesy of Engadget HD), things seemed to work as planned, with only the analog antenna feed going to a test message (in earlier tests, sometimes cable viewers would get a misleading message saying that they were unready when they actually were). Still, it was only two minutes. The really interesting tests in this series will be the two 30-minute tests in Hartford on Dec 3rd.

Other tests were held in Chicago, with one of the stations - WGN - using the Bozo the Clown character (which originated there but which the station no longer broadcasts) to deliver the bad news. That test generated more than 10,000 calls. Dayton, OH also had a co-ordinated test, but I haven't been able to find any followup stories with results. Locally, Boston will be doing a co-ordinated five-minute test on December 9th.

Of course, the most telling tests aren't actually tests at all, but rather an early switchover (like Wilmington, NC a couple months back). The Boston (actually southern New Hampshire, but part of the Boston DMA) MyTV affiliate will be switching early on December 1st. It's an interesting choice, given that their digital signal is a mere 480i, incapable of broadcasting HD. But the big news is Hawai'i, where the entire state goes digital-only on January 15th. The reason is fairly unique; going at the same time as everyone else would require dismantling old TV towers during the nesting season of the endangered Hawaiian petrel. So far, I haven't seen much local coverage after the initial buzz, or any sign yet of the kind of intensive handholding the FCC gave the Wilmington, NC area - but it's still early.

Meanwhile, educational efforts continue, from an expanding range of organizations. Some are governmental bodies, like the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), which is giving $2.7 million to agencies that will offer technical assistance to seniors. Some are coalitions of government and community groups, as is the case in Omaha, Nebraska. Some are broadcasters, as with the joint effort of Univision and Telemundo to spread awareness in the Spanish-speaking community, or PBS's 30-minute This Old House special. Some are industry groups, like the NAB, who recently announced the next phase of its saturation PSA campaign. And some are retailers, like Best Buy, who recently teamed up with the NAB to host in-store workshops in 25 cities.

One more note, a follow-up from last time. Remember the Digital Transition Ford, the FCC's official NASCAR auto which crashed? Well, it did that again, and what's more the sponsorship money earned FCC Chairman Kevin Martin the designation of "Porker of the Month" from Citizens Against Government Waste. But Martin thinks it's a good thing overall, reasoning that viewers pay more attention to cars that crash.

GOVERNMENT - Surprisingly, I haven't seen much new on the status of the converter box coupon program, which is odd considering the questions raised recently over the ability of the current funding to last through February. One interesting figure was revealed; the head of the NTIA says that 62% of antenna households have requested coupons. Of course, a bunch of those may have expired as the program's statistics page reveals that more than 11 million of the almost 36 million requested coupons have done just that. This works out to an expiration rate of 31.09% indicating that this rate has finally leveled off after growing steadily over the last few months. And there's a new option for box purchasers, as Dish Network’s DTVPal DVR (the first converter box with an included DVR, plus the ability to watch HD) was unveiled.

With less converter-box program news, the biggest government-related story concerns a different spectrum-related matter, the proposed use of the "white spaces" between frequency bands by a new generation of wireless broadband devices. As explained last time, the FCC, ignoring their own earlier tests (which showed that the new devices have the potential to cause interference to both broadcasts and wireless microphones), decided that the problem could be solved by having them communicate with an "avoid these frequencies" database. A vote was scheduled for November 4th, and it was an interesting few weeks in the run-up to that vote, Microsoft and its partners in the White Spaces Coalition (Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips, Earthlink, and Samsung) and the Wireless Innovation Alliance were strongly in favor of the new uses. They were opposed by broadcasters (concerned, naturally, with the possible effects on broadcast signals) and entertainers (more concerned with the wireless microphones used in concert, as evidenced by Dolly Parton's letter to the FCC), both arguing for a delayed vote and a period for public comment. They didn't get it, as the vote was taken as scheduled and the new uses were approved.

And there's one other governmental issue causing uncertainty in the TV community - what can we expect from the new administration?

BROADCASTING - I keep seeing stories about new HD newscasts, but instead of giving you the usual handful of examples, I'm going to start posting a link to this AVS thread that keeps much better track of this than I can. In addition, this post in the Official AVS HDTV Programming Synopsis is a comprehensive chart that is updated regularly. Those of you who are aggravated that there is a holdout or two in your city should check the lesser DMAs (starting around #100) to see how many markets still have no HD news.

In the previous section I mentioned how a new technology was about to encroach on the spectrum normally occupied by broadcasting. But this may just be precursor to another spectrum-related idea that's even more radical (and would, in a sense, make irrelevant broadcasters' concerns about white space interference) - stop broadcasting altogether, and have TV reside entirely on a combination of cable, satellite and online platforms. While certainly visionary, it's hard to see how this could be politically feasible in the short-to-medium term without some kind of mandatory free lifeline service from cable and satellite companies for the millions of people who just don't want to pay a monthly fee to watch TV (perhaps they'd have to apply for this, as they did for their converter-box coupons). It's certainly getting some attention from defenders of over-the-air broadcasting.

One way for broadcasters to fight back is to expand into new areas, and the area making news recently is mobile DTV broadcasting to cellphones and other handhelds. Development of the necessary technical standards is proceeding quickly and broadcasters are pleased with tests. But there's one thing that could throw up a serious obstacle to progress, and that's if the deepening recession puts a serious crimp in discretionary spending.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - As has been the rule for roughly a year now (just look at the focus of their advertisements), Job #1 for program providers is to add as much HD to their channel lineups as possible. The last couple of months Verizon has been making the big news here, with HD channel lineups in many locations at or approaching triple digits. But now Time Warner Cableis making some serious moves of its own. Not that they're hitting triple digits but getting up to 83 is pretty good for non-satellite. In addition, AT&T's U-Verse service is up to 75. Where does that leave Comcast, the number one terrestrial provider? Well, they're competitive with that in one area - Boston (just the city proper and neighboring Brookline), with Chicago slightly behind (at 60+) That's two places where analog has been drastically scaled back, with Detroit shrinking analog to limited basic by year's end. This AVS post shows the list for the Boston area, with the ones in bold being the ones that can be seen outside of Boston/Brookline. That's 84 total, with 43 of those available in Greater Boston (we just got our first adds in months - FX and Fox News). All of which whets the appetite for those Digital Terminal Adapters (DTAs) that Comcast will be using to eliminate analog nationwide over the next couple of years. They plan to start in Oregon (Portland/Salem area) any day now. Some smaller operators (like Massilon Cable, Bend Broadband, Mediacom Communications and Bresnan Communications) have already cut the analog cord completely.

HD NETWORKS - Given all the efforts to expand HD channel capacity I've been detailing (in the previous section) over the prior months, I continue to be surprised at the slow pace of new channels and announcements lately. This time we have no launches and two announcements. Ion Media Networks's three channels (Ion Television, qubo, and Ion Life) will be going HD in 2009 (with the flagship Ion Television scheduled for the first quarter). Also, MSNBC will go HD in the second quarter of next year.

On the minus side of the ledger, MOJO is about to disappear (other than on Comcast VOD, their own website, and iTunes) - the last MOJO show is an episode of Pressure Cook airing at 11:30 AM on December 1st. But you wouldn't know that from the station promos - it's Friday, November 28th as I write this, and I have yet to see an announcement of what is to come in less than three days, although there has been a shift towards ads for their DVD line (what, no Blu-ray?) and if you read between the lines you might be able to make something of the fact that during this last week the ads for regular weekly episodes of various series are being phased out. At least the website is reflecting the new reality. Speaking of which, the site will host the one remaining piece of upcoming new MOJO content I'm aware of - a Three Sheets New Year's Eve special. No word yet on new homes for any of their series, alas.

MOJO's demise leaves an open slot in many bandwidth-strapped cable lineups, what will fill it? One example of a network getting some advantage out of this situation is MGM HD's pickup by Time Warner Cable in Raleigh, NC (MGM has also recently signed agreements with providers that were not carrying MOJO, like U-verse).

That's all I have for now!