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And So We Start the Last Full Year

January 6, 2008

Happy New Year to everyone!

With the announcements of new, better performing (and cheaper) HDTV models coming at CES in the next couple of days, I'm a little distracted (since I'm in the market). I expect to report on the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show regularly during the week.

The government's converter box coupon program started with a bang -- more than a million coupons were requested during the first two days.

And big news in the HD format wars: Warner Brothers (and sister company New Line) just announced they are switching to Blu-ray exclusive starting at the end of May. That means 70 percent of movies will only be available on Blu-ray. The experts expect the remaining HD-DVD hold-outs will convert to Blu later this year. Expect the same for retailers.

I've got another FCC transition comment for you from a misled consumer, and that report on the FCC's newly released broadcaster transition build-out rules.

Another victim falls prey to cable industry scare tactics. How many more are out there?

"I will be retireing soon and I like a lot of people how are over 65 will not be able to pay for cable of anthing but rabite ears to see our tv, and now you are saying that will be the only way to get tv, is the goverment going to help us pay for this, as we have to have food, pay elce, and gas, have a car to get round, and our RX. Please tell us how we are to pay an extra $90.00 a month for this on what lettle S/S pays, and that is all 60% of us will get."

So much for the government plan to let the TV industry handle consumer education.

The FCC's Report & Order on its "Third Periodic Review of the Commission's Rules and Policies Affecting the Conversion To Digital Television" was released on December 31. These rules set out the final road map for TV broadcasters to construct and operate their digital transmission facilities leading up to and beyond the end of the transition.

The Order, at more than 150 pages, is complex and detailed, specifying paths for broadcasters in various situations. It tells what they need to do and when, but also gives them options and allows for waivers. As stated in the introduction:

"We recognize that the transition is a complex undertaking presenting many challenges to the broadcast industry and that some disruption of television service may be unavoidable leading up to the analog turn-off. Therefore, we adopt rules to offer broadcasters regulatory flexibility, while at the same time requiring broadcasters to maintain the best possible television service to the public and meet viewers' over-the-air reception expectations after the transition date."

One wonders why these rules could not have been written a couple of years ago. In his accompanying statement, Commission Copps says:

"One year earlier would have been the charm. Sometimes timing is everything, and here a year's earlier start might have been the difference between a seamless and a chaotic Digital TV Transition. Had we acted then, we could have established a far more measured and orderly switch-over process, and the difficult trade-offs and compressed schedules contained in this Order could have been largely avoided."

There will be 1,812 full-power TV stations at the end of the transition. Of these, about 800 have completed their digital facilities. Only 1,635 are now transmitting some sort of digital signal (all were required to do this years ago; the FCC is only now letting the broadcast industry know they need to take the transition seriously).

The difficulty of switching over from analog to a final digital channel depends on whether a station's final digital channel is the same as its interim digital channel, or whether they are transitioning from their interim digital channel to the one they had been using for their analog channel, or to a completely new final digital channel.

1,178 stations will keep their interim digital channel permanently.

These stations must move to their final digital facilities by May 18, 2008 (nine months before the end of the transition) if they already have an FCC construction permit, or by August 18 (six months before) if they do not yet have that final facility construction permit.

Stations that can demonstrate "a unique technical challenge" will be given until February 17, 2009.

Stations moving to a new digital channel may be allowed to temporarily operate on their interim digital channel past the end of the transition (2/17/09) if such service reaches all of their analog and digital viewers and does not cause "impermissible" interference to other stations.

Stations may be allowed to operate past the end of the transition at less than full signal strength if they can demonstrate a "unique technical challenge" and at least 85 percent of their viewers continue to receive a signal.

The FCC is allowing stations to reduce or cease their analog or digital signals for less than 30 days if needed during the contruction of their final facilities, without prior FCC approval. Such service interruptions for periods longer than 30 days may be allowed with prior FCC approval.

During the last 90 days before the end of the transition, stations may terminate or reduce service without FCC approval. Notification is still required.

The FCC will allow stations under certain circumstances to transition from their interim digital channel to their final digital channel before the end of the transition.

The FCC in its discussion of these rules makes clear that it expects consumers will have the opportunity to obtain digital equipment (new TVs or converter boxes) before stations reduce or shut off analog service, and has imposed a viewer notification requirement in those instances.

The Commission also has considered the trade-off in loss of service for consumers:

"We recognize, however, that in some situations it maybe preferable for some viewers to lose television service for a limited time after the transition date if that would prevent many viewers from losing analog TV service for a significant time before the transition date."

Just a couple more points, and we'll wrap this up.

AFD. That's automatic format descriptors; it tells the television how to display programming. This is only a problem because we have old 4:3 programming and old 4:3 TV sets, and new 16:9 widescreen programming and new 16:9 HDTVs. Both types of programming are going to both types of sets, which makes for all sorts of strange possibilities.

AFD is a technology that makes sure programming is presented properly on whatever set you're using. Unfortunately, the TV industry doesn't want to make this mandatory and the FCC went along with them.

PSIP. Program System and Information Protocol. This is really good stuff and the FCC is requiring it, thank goodness.

"PSIP data is transmitted along with a station's DTV signal and provides DTV receivers with information about the station and what is being broadcast. . . . We find that the updated ATSC PSIP standard enhances consumers' viewing experience by providing detailed information about digital channels and programs, such as how to find a program's closed captions, multiple streams and V-chip information."

It also makes it possible for new TVs to assemble electronic program guides for over-the-air viewers (as an optional feature).

So, now we see what happens.

Until next week . . . CES 2008!