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New Blu-ray Player; House Hearing; FCC Meeting

November 4, 2007

The first Profile 1.1 Blu-ray player will be out in a week. Not any of the ones that were the first announced -- it's Panasonic's DMP-BD30K. The Profile 1.1 specification, which is also known as the final standard profile or full profile, is now called "Bonus View." Not sure how long that one will stick, but there it is. More below . . .

The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held another hearing on the transition on Wednesday. There was the usual political posturing, but also some good new information. More below . . .

The FCC held another meeting of its Consumer Advisory Committee on Friday. Not sure who is advising who. More below . . .

Panasonic's new DMP-BD30K Blu-ray player will be out more or less on November 12, priced at $499 (MSRP). Lots of good stuff inside.

It's got HDMI 1.3 of course, but also is the first Profile 1.1 player to hit the street. That mostly means it has two video and two audio processors so it can do picture-in-picture supplemental features. The second video processor is standard definition, but since that's usually going to be used to put a little window inset into the main HD picture, that will work just fine.

It will upconvert everything to 1080p, enhancing lower resolution programming, but of course it's not going to turn standard-definition into true high-definition (I read that many people believe that's what upconverting DVD players do.)

It outputs 1080/24p and 60p.

It decodes a bunch of audio formats internally: Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby True HD, DTS, and DTS-HD High Resolution. Missing is DTS-HD Master Audio.

It has an SD card slot to satisfy the Profile 1.1 memory requirement. That just means you supply the memory, but it also may give you more flexibility in what you can feed into the machine.

7.3 pounds. Pretty light.

I knew I had been watching these Congressional DTV hearings too long when my first thought upon seeing Best Buy's Michael Vitelli at the witness table was that he looked like he had lost some weight.

And I wasn't surprised when committee member Dennis Hastert said he had several analog TVs around the house, but quickly added "my wife watches them--I don't," as if admitting to watching television would damage his professional stature. At an earlier hearing he bragged that he had an ancient black and white TV with rabbit ears in his Washington residence.

I've learned to pay attention to the spectators sitting behind the witnesses; there are always a few distracting, if not entertaining moments to add interest to the proceeding.

I suppose I notice these things because most of what goes on is so predictable, but there are always bits and pieces of good stuff.

Joe Uva, the CEO of Univision (the Spanish language broadcast network), reiterated the education program they launched on October 1 -- multiple 30 minute specials, PSAs, web pages, news spots, etc. Clearly they're ahead of the major networks in educating their "hard-to-reach" Latino viewers about the transition. They'll probably be more knowledgable than the population at large. (A Friday FCC meeting comment on recent focus group research confirmed that.)

Michael Vitelli, a Senior Vice President and General Manager at Best Buy, representing that chain and also the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition (CERC), reaffirmed that Best Buy would participate in the converter box program. He broke from past NTIA and industry testimony this time in saying outright and on his own that he expects Best Buy's point of sale (POS) systems will not be ready to process coupons until close to April 1.

He recommended that NTIA come out of its closet and tell the public what all the insiders have known for a long time--that consumers should not expect to receive their coupons before April 1. Once this "clarity" is out in the open, manufacturers of the converter boxes will be able to better plan their production schedules, and they should then have access to early consumer demand information. IBM and retailers will have sufficient time to ensure their systems are running correctly and reliably. Retailers will also have a better idea of demand, and will therefore know where and how many boxes to stock.

Last but not least, telling the public about the April 1 coupon availability date instead of repeating the January 1 date for requesting coupons will minimize consumer confusion.

Michael Vitelli

Michael Vitelli

Vitelli's upfront acknowledgment of the April 1 date was gratifying. He seemed to be completely comfortable (and perhaps relieved to get it out), contrasted to his obvious discomfort before the same committee on March 28 when he obfuscated in response to Chairman Markey's grilling on whether Best Buy would have converter boxes for sale on January 1 (the date set by Congress).

NTIA's request for proposals (RFP) for the coupon administration contract, out a week before the March hearing, specified April 1 for the beginning of coupon distribution and redemption. Vitelli knew about that buried detail; Markey didn't.

Up to now, there has been an NTIA-led united front to keep the three-month program delay secret. Hopefully now there will be light.

Later in the hearing, Vitelli revealed that Best Buy's computer systems will not be able to process coupon redemptions through its web site. So if you want to buy a government-subsidized converter box from Best Buy, you'll have to do it at one of their brick-and-mortar stores, or order by telephone. Vitelli didn't know about other retailers (I'm thinking, but thought that some internet retailers might be able to accommodate the coupons (that is, accepting two methods of payment for one purchase).

On consumer education, Vitelli told the committee that Best Buy has started running DTV transition announcements on their in-store video loops six times an hour. He also said they would "soon" start printing transition information on the backs of their receipts.

When Hilda Solis (Dem - CA) reminded him about the PIRG under-cover investigation that turned up widespread inaccurate and misleading information being given to consumers in electronics stores (inc. Best Buy) about converter boxes, Vitelli explained that their training had been focused on high-definition TVs. He said training would shift to the converter box program closer to when the boxes become available ("after the holiday").

Of course that works to their favor, since consumers are not likely to wait for a converter box for their analog TV if they don't know they exist, and are likely instead to go ahead and buy a digital/HD TV. The main sales period for HDTVs is pre-Christmas/pre-SuperBowl.

John Taylor from LG Electronics volunteered that it was too soon to talk about converter boxes because they are not yet available. LG will start manufacturing its converter boxes next week in time to hit store shelves in "early 2008." (He did say the LG boxes would retail for around $60, and exceed Energy Star standards.) In the meantime, LG will be happy to sell HDTVs to consumers worried about the analog shutdown.

Solis was clearly not happy with their answers and reminded both that transition PSAs have already started airing, so keeping the coupon program under wraps will cause consumer confusion.

I was curious about the 6-times-per-hour transition education spot that Vitelli said was running in their stores and went to check it out. I stood in front of their wall of flat-panels and waited to be educated, but all I learned was that Best Buy was showing up-converted standard definition movie clips on their gorgeous 1080p HDTVs. The softness and lack of detail was unmistakable.

Anyway, after about fifteen minutes a salesperson happened by and responded to my query by explaining their server had three channels, and the education pieces were on another channel. He further explained that their server had been acting up--why they changed channels.

He said the spots only said analog broadcasts would be shut-down in February 2009.

That news of course would tend to provoke questions about the transition, and since Vitelli acknowledged staff would not be trained on transition details until after the end of the year, one could guess the transition video blurbs might create some awkwardness.

This was the same store where a salesman confided to me a few years ago that the manager told them not to run the broadcast HD antenna feed on their high-definition sets (he turned it on for me for a minute and then switched back to the standard-definition store loop). So I'm not sure why the educating channel was turned off.

I went home and looked for the education video snippet on BestBuy's web site, but didn't find it. There was some good text information on the transition if you were willing to dig for it. Certainly no links on their home page.

Best Buy is the most progressive DTV transition big box retailer. Oh well.

The other interesting exchange at the hearing was between Chairman Markey and the National Association of Broadcasters' spokesperson-of-the-day David Barrett (President and CEO, Hearst-Argyle Television). Barrett argued that mandated PSAs would mess everything up, reporting that more than 1000 broadcasters had signed up for the voluntary education campaign (leaving only 800 or so non-volunteers--Markey called these "the shirkers").

Barrett suggested this logic: if the FCC mandates a minimum baseline number of PSAs, stations will think there is nothing more that needs to be done, but if the FCC doesn't require that any PSAs be aired, stations will be motivated to mount a much more comprehensive education campaign. Hmmm.

Regarding the shirkers, Barrett said "they're going to marginalize their own business interests," and "Some people will take a free ride." The latter is undoubtedly true.

Barrett asserted that the participating stations' PSAs would reach 93% of TV viewers. I guess that means the other 7% will have to find out about the transition some other way. That is, unless the FCC requires all broadcasters to participate in educating consumers.

David Barrett

The FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee met on Friday. I watched through noon but then had to leave; the archived webcast is not yet available so I'll have to wait until next week to report anything interesting that happened during the afternoon discussion sessions.

The "Don't worry, be happy!" tone presented by speakers from the NTIA and TV industry was contrasted by the more ominous introductory remarks made by FCC Commissioners Copps and Adelstein.

It's interesting to note that they were not included on the agenda (which irked at least Adelstein), and had to walk down to the meeting and invite themselves to speak. These two Democratic Commissioners are often at odds with Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, who apparently wields complete control over FCC staff and priorities.

Copps had just returned from a trip to the United Kingdom where he witnessed the first stage of their switchover to digital television. The UK is doing their transition in stages, one town or region at a time. Their consumer education efforts are extreme, with everyone being personally contacted at least twice. Remarkably, someone comes out to the homes of the elderly to instruct them about the transition, and to hook up their TVs to converter boxes.

Copps said he was worried about the U.S. DTV transition before his trip; now he's scared!

He contrasted his participation in a U.S. inter-agency task force for Y2K preparations (switching computers over from two- to four-digit date notation). That effort had central direction, lots of publicity well in advance, and lots of planning. The DTV transition has none of that.

He also lamented that setting public interest requirements for broadcasters in the digital era has been neglected. He declared the FCC has been "asleep at the switch."

Commissioner Adelstein wondered why one lone Commissioner went to England while no one else was doing anything. There is no plan and nobody in charge. He said it was not just a matter of education, there was also implementation. While thanking the industry for forming the transition Coalition, he noted that the private sector had its own agendas. The government therefore needed to look out for the public interest.

Cathy Seidel, Chief of the FCC's Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau, gave her pro forma report and then left to attend other meetings. Hmm. Skipping out on one of the rare Consumer Advisory Committee DTV transition meetings? Priorities?

Her consumer bureau is focusing their education efforts on the "at risk" segments (seniors, rurals, etc.) in what struck me as a retail effort reaching only small numbers of people. She acknowledged as much, citing lack of funds.

Tony Wilhem, NTIA's Director of Consumer Education, delivered an amazing "NTIA Update" that raised the bar for over-the-top self-congratulatory cliches--aren't we wonderful! All without adding any new information. It was incredible.

Lots of communication between the FCC and NTIA! No problem with leadership and coordination! A very good process! Attended all the meetings! Have all the data! All on the same page moving forward! Working very closely with the agencies leading the charge! Partnerships with 145 organizations, and 14 government agencies! Focusing on large cities and small towns! Very active and robust collaboration! This is an historic effort out here! So we applaud industry! We thanked our retail partners! We thanked the broadcasters! We thanked the cable industry! A billion dollars! Really quite amazing! We're all active and engaged! A huge priority for us! Lining up a lot of great commitments! Hoping they'll send e-mail alerts to their members! We hope people will link to our web site we'll be starting in January! It's great to be here! We thank all of you for your active engagement!

Questions: He was asked about box prices. He said one box certified a month ago has a $70 price. Actually, two boxes have been certified, and at the Wednesday hearing, LG said their box would sell for about $60. I guess he didn't attend that meeting.

One member wanted to know if the government could have one government 800 number for DTV transition questions instead of two, saying the NTIA number had a message that said the transition is coming, call back in January, and the FCC message said call during regular weekday hours, and added that for coupon information, call the NTIA 800 number.

"Wouldn't it be better to have just one information number for consumers to call?" she repeated.

Wilhelm said the FCC was responsible for the transition, and the NTIA was responsible for the converter box program, so he thought having two numbers was "a perfectly reasonable approach."


By the way, he did not take Vitelli's advice to 'fess up and tell the consumer advocates at the meeting that coupons would not be available until April.

Until next week . . .