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New Pioneer Stuff; SED Update; FCC Speaks

May 13, 2007

Pioneer has just announced some significant products, including their second-generation Blu-ray Disc player, three new A/V receivers with HDMI 1.3 and advanced audio format decoding, and several new plasma 1080p TVs.

A/V receivers:

- VSX-91TXH - June - $1000 msrp

- VSX-92TXH - August - $1300

- VSX-94TXH - August - $1600

All three have HDMI 1.3 inputs, pass 1080p 24 fps, and decode Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as the older formats. Hooray!

The two upper models also have something called Neural-THX Surround "for faithful reproduction of multi-channel surround sound." They also incorporate a Faroudja video scaler chip, in case your digital TV does not have that capability or does not do it well.

Pioneer's new Elite BDP-94HD Blu-ray player will be available this month at an msrp of $1000, substantially less than the less-capable model that preceded it.

The BDP-94HD does internal decoding of Dolby TrueHD lossless audio and Dolby Digital Plus.

Buyers of this new player will be treated to two free BD titles. Don't know what they are just yet. The Pioneer-supplied photo below has the model designation BDP-LX70, which could be European or Asian or superceded. Who knows? One presumes that the BDP-94HD will look like the photo.

Pioneer also has some new plasma TVs, including "1080p" models, both regular Pioneer models as well as premium Elite models. The press release did not clarify whether their 1080p sets are Full HD 1920 x 1080. Let's hope so.

- PDP-5010FD - 50" - 1080p - September - $5,000

- PDP-6010FD - 60" - 1080p - September - $6,500

- Elite PRO-110FD - 50" - 1080p - September - $6,000

- Elite PRO-150FD - 60" - 1080p - September - $7,500

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Would-be SED TV maker Canon now has the jury decision on damages in Nano-Proprietary's lawsuit against Canon for violating its licensing agreement. An earlier decision said Nano-Proprietary (whose technology Canon needed to build SED TVs) was entitled to terminate the license agreement. The jury in the trial has now set damages: they said Canon is not liable for anything more than the $5.5 million that it had already paid out (since no SED TVs were actually sold).

The big question is -- are consumers ever going to see an SED TV?

Well, maybe.

The Nano press release noted that, during the trial, Canon had confirmed its plans to move forward with SED TV. Nano Technology is certainly ready to license its technology to anyone willing to pay the price, including Canon.

Unfortunately, we'll not likely see SED TV sets as soon as the earlier planned late-2007 launch date. Not even close.

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Finally, Chairman Kevin Martin of the FCC made some interesting remarks before the National Cable & Telecommunications Association on May 7. In his opening, he expressed surprise that he had even been invited to talk, noting recent headlines such as "Chairman vs. Cable," "NCTA Heaps Scorn on FCC's Plans," an NCTA quote calling his policies "simplistic and misguided," and another reference that the cable industry didn't agree with him on a "single issue."

So he was in the lion's den.

Two of the issues he covered were a la carte channel pricing and multi-cast must-carry.

A la carte channel pricing of course lets the consumer pay only for the specific channels they want. Martin has been pushing for this consumer-friendly practice. The cable TV industry strongly opposes this.

Martin noted that the number of channels included in cable's expanded basic tier has continued to "skyrocket," along with the price charged subscribers. The cable industry has claimed that a la carte pricing would be unworkable and would cost most consumers more. Martin disagreed, pointing out in his speech that a la carte has worked well in other countries where it has been implemented; he cited Hong Kong and Canada.

"For example, Rogers Cable, a Canadian cable operator, offers consumers substantially greater choice and appears to be benefitting financially from this decision. Its net income for every quarter in 2006 appears to have outpaced its net income for those same quarters in 2005."

He went on to counter the cable industry's bizarre argument that mandatory a la carte channel pricing would violate their First Amendment free speech rights. "All of the versions of a la carte," he said, "would keep government out of regulating content directly while enabling consumers, including parents, to receive the programming they want and believe to be appropriate for their families."

"Multi-cast must-carry" says cable companies must carry all of broadcasters' secondary digital channels.

Some background: our new digital/HD TV standard was designed so that a high-definition program could be broadcast in the same 6MHz bandwidth as one NTSC/analog standard definition program. This is one of the big advantages of going digital, because the HD program contains five times more picture detail than a standard-def analog picture.

Somewhere along the way, broadcasters figured out that they could substitute five digital standard definition programs for the one high definition program (and presumably reap advertising revenue times five). Initially, the idea was to do the multiple standard definition programs ("multi-casting") during the day, and switch over to a single high-definition program during prime-time.

Then some TV station bean-counter decided they could probably take away some of the bandwidth from the high-definition program (compress the HD signal more, thereby degrading its picture quality) and use that bandwidth to broadcast a standard definition sub-channel at the same time as the HD program. Who would notice?

Down the slippery slope they went.

PBS stations (at least in my area) are now broadcasting during prime-time a "high-definition" channel and three digital standard definition channels. High-definition in this degraded form is no longer high-definition but rather widescreen standard definition because its bit-rate is so reduced.

PBS has reached an agreement with the cable industry to carry their sub-channels; cable says they have programming the public wants to see. As an aside, note that one of the PBS sub-channels is a "kids" channel, which is fine, except that the kids' shows run at least through midnight! And here we get into the issue of prime-time censorship, but I digress . . .

Anyway, back to Chairman Martin's remarks.

Martin is for multi-cast must-carry, based on the idea that most consumers get their programming via cable (and do not have an antenna), so if the cable companies do not carry all of these broadcaster sub-channels (if they only carry the broadcaster's primary/HD channel), most TV viewers will not be able to watch those sub-channels.

Martin thinks that more free channels is a good thing for consumers.

Broadcasters say if the cable companies do not carry the sub-channels, they cannot attract advertisers for them and therefore cannot have sub-channels.

The cable TV industry strongly opposes mandatory carriage of all of these subchannels, saying consumers should be able to choose the channels they want (and not have to pay for all of those broadcasters' sub-channels). They say they will voluntarily carry those sub-channels having content that has demonstrated subscriber appeal.

But they don't want to use their limited bandwidth for much of the sub-channel programming broadcasters want to put up (e.g. local weather, loops of their local news shows, home shopping channels, etc.). Many broadcasters want to use sub-channels for national canned programming they would be paid to carry.

Again, Martin thinks that more free channels is a good thing for consumers, notwithstanding that it degrades video quality.

In his speech, he linked both a la carte channel pricing and multi-cast must-carry to the public policy goal of consumer choice. He then argued that the cable industry could not have it both ways, i.e. against pro-choice a la carte and yet also against multi-cast must-carry because it negates consumer choice.

These are prickly issues.