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Odds & Ends

Sepember 16, 2007

This week: new pricey Marantz BD player, a different sort of remote control from Sharp, a UK proposal to ban plasma TVs, the FCC's ruling on cable carriage of broadcast channels, and looking for the promised Senate DTV education hearing.

Marantz has just announced its first Blu-ray Disc player -- the BD8002 -- for release in the first quarter of 2008 for the princely sum of $2100. Like its $2000 Denon cousin (the two brands are part of the same company), the player will conform to Profile 1.1 specs (as will all new models released after October 31).

The Marantz player features the 10-bit Silicon Optix Realta chipset for high-end video processing, and we can also expect a similar audio pedigree.

Marantz' current high-end standard DVD player (pictured below) sells for the same $2100. The new BD8002 looks to be a little taller with a bigger display (no official photos available yet). I expect they're not selling many $2K standard DVD players these days.

I now have a photo of the remote control for the 19" Sharp HDTV I mentioned last week. In case you missed it, the LC-19D44U's remote features a large clock display and a built-in On/Off timer, which can be used as a sleep timer or alarm clock in a bedroom or as a timer for the kitchen. Additional remote control functions include a backlight for viewing in dim lighting conditions, a magnetic back that can affix to a metal surface such as a refrigerator, and three long-range transmitters, which enable users to control the TV from various spots in a room without pointing the remote at the unit. Very cool.

A report coming out of the United Kingdom has the Conservative Party set to propose energy efficiency regulations that would effectively outlaw power-hungry plasma TVs. Also targeted are energy-guzzling refrigerators, personal computers, and stand-by power features, which continuously use non-trivial amounts of electricity.

You may recall that the U.S. government specifications for digital-to-analog converter-boxes included limits on power consumption in the stand-by mode, although the final number fell short of what environmentalists were calling for (in favor of more relaxed limits proposed by the industry).

So where's SED when we need it?

The FCC Tuesday evening announced its rules for cable carriage of broadcast channels. The final regulations pulled back from what the FCC proposed, coming down from pro-consumer ideals to pro-cable-industry sympathy.

While the details in the full order have not yet been released, a press statement lays out the broad strokes.

First, if you're an anlog cable subscriber, the rules require your cable provider to continue analog service for three years after the end of the digital transition -- that is, until February 17, 2012. The FCC will review the situation during the year prior to that date and may decide to entend it.

That means all the people who unwittingly bought analog TVs in the last few years should count on tossing them four years from now (or buy an antenna and converter box).

If you have an HDTV, the ruling requires cable companies to deliver broadcasters' HD programming to you in high-definition, but with important caveats.

The FCC rejected its own proposal that cable provide you with bit-for-bit identical HD quality -- an objective standard -- in favor of the old analog-based subjective standard. That means cable can recompress the broadcaster's HD signal and even downconvert it to some lesser "HD" quality.

Do the FCC Commissioners personally care about video quality? I've never seen any evidence of that. Commissoner McDowell in his statement on this ruling even announced that he was an analog cable subscriber, and I'm guessing he could afford a high-definition digital set if picture quality was a priority.

The other part of the subjective standard is that the cable company only has to provide broadcast programming no worse in quality than any non-broadcast programming they distribute. So if everything else they send to your cable box is standard-definition, the FCC is not going to demand any better for broadcast programming.

Smaller cable companies will be allowed to request waivers from these rules. The Commissioners expressed sympathy for their limited finances, and suggested that they might better spend their cable TV revenues on expanding broadband data services. The upshoot is if these smaller cable companies want to stick with all-analog standard-def TV services after February 2009, that's the only thing you'll see on your big widescreen HDTV.

The cable industry was appreciative. In its post-ruling statement, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said this:

"More recently, our industry developed a voluntary plan in which we would commit to three years of dual carriage for commercial must carry stations, taking into account the very limited but special circumstances of small cable systems.

"We are pleased that the FCC's action today adopts cable's carriage plan. And we are pleased that the FCC dropped an ill-considered mandate that would have turned back the clock on decades of digital technology innovation."

That last little bit about digital technology innovation refers to their present ability to compress the hell out of a digital video signal so they can sell you more video-on-demand, broadband data, and voice services.

The FCC is also proposing further relief for smaller cable companies; we'll have details when the order and further proposed rule is released.

Finally, at a Senate hearing in July on DTV transition consumer education efforts, a number of committee members expressed frustration that no one could tell them when the vaunted industry education program would actually show up on TV screens.

Chairman Inouye announced that in September there would be another hearing and that knowledgeable industry members would attend. Well, it's mid-September and nothing's on their hearing schedule yet -- well, nothing on DTV transition education.

On September 18, however, they are having a hearing to "examine the current compensation system for National Football League retirees with claims of advanced injuries that became symptomatic after retiring from the NFL."

With all the challenges facing the country today, this is how the Senate spends its valuable time (when not in recess, or as the House calls it - "District Work Period", or as the rest of us call it - vacation).

But there's still time, so I'll let you know . . .

Until next week. . .