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More Miscellaneous

March 30, 2008

This week we've got HDTV penetration statistics and forecasts, FCC developments (or lack thereof), and of course more converter box news.

The Hollywood Reporter cited a study that estimated by 2012, about two-thirds of cable and satellite customers would be paying for high-definition programming service. It was about 19 percent in 2007.

What I want to know is why wouldn't all subscribers of all tiers automatically get HD programming--standard--in 2012, three years after the end of a broadcast transition to digital/HD television? It reminds me of the telephone companies charging extra for touch-tone service many years after rotary telephones disappeared. (Rotary telephones? Many of you won't know what I'm talking about, but trust me, it's just another sleazy way to separate you from your money.)

A new CEA report says 39 percent of households have HDTVs. They estimate that more than 2.4 million high-definition TVs were purchased in anticipation of January's Superbowl. That's a lot of new HDTVs!

The National Association of Broadcasters is bragging that 64 TV stations are now creating local programming in high-definition--that's up 50% from a year ago!

Unfortunately, that's 64 stations out of about 1800. Pretty pathetic, I would say. The transition is 12 years old now, with less than 11 months left before it ends. Dragging their feet, it would seem.

FCC Stuff

The Federal Communications Commission has just announced the effective date of its DTV Consumer Education Initiative requirements. March 31, it is. There is a summary of those requirements in my March 9 report, in case you missed it.

The FCC also this past Thursday published the Report and Order containing the requirements for satellite (DirecTV and Dish) carriage of local HD broadcasts.

By way of clarification, the order does not require that they provide any local service in more markets than they already do. The FCC does, however, "recognize that the availability of local broadcast signals in markets unserved by satellite would constitute a significant consumer benefit."

Currently, 182 of the 210 designated TV market areas have local-into-local service from at least one of the national satellite carriers.

What the new rules do is to phase in high-definition service in market areas where satellite service providers carry at least one station's signal in high-definition. It is a "carry-one, carry-all" rule; if they carry one HD signal, they have to carry all local stations' high definition signals in that market area.

The requirement is phased in over four years. This does not mean that at the end of the four years (in 2013) all market areas will get HD service for all their local stations. If there is no HD service at all in a specific market, there is no requirement to carry any HD programming in that market.

The FCC's proposed bi-directional navigation device regulations continue to languish (for plug-and-play two-way cable service standards). Dell was just adding their lobbying to the pile. For a good report on this issue, check out this article. OCAP versus DCR+ and all that stuff.

Converter Box Stuff

There are now 63 certified converter box models listed on NTIA's web site. Many manufacturers now have multiple models listed; for example, Digital Stream has seven models on the list. One presumes that they have models superceding older models.

Just added to the list is the RCA DTA-800B1 (among others), which I expect replaces the -800B, which has attracted a lot of attention, but I have yet to see in any store. Late note: The 800B1 adds analog pass-through.

In fact, just two boxes appear to be getting broad market exposure. Well, three. I'm counting the LG-made Zenith box and its LG-made Insignia clone as the same model. The other one is the Magnavox TB100MW9, sold by WalMart. The Zenith box is sold by RadioShack and Circuit City; the Insignia box is sold by Best Buy.

Those are the four big-box national chains that NTIA lists as currently selling certified boxes.

Consumer Reports reviewed the three boxes. They summarized: "Based on our tests of the first boxes to arrive in stores, the Insignia and Zenith converters provide a slightly better image and some added features that make them more convenient to use than the Magnavox."

They also commented on the aspect control (Remember my discussion about Active Format Description -- AFD -- and the need to manually switch back forth between formats?). They say "The Insignia and Zenith have a button on the remote that lets you adjust the aspect ratio. With the Magnavox, you have to use the remote and the on-screen setup menu." Glad I didn't get the Magnavox!

In case you're into electronic program guides: "The Insignia and Zenith boxes have an electronic program guide that lists the program title and run time for the current and next programs for all channels. The Magnavox's guide shows the program title, run time, and a brief summary of programs only for the channel you are watching."

I had assumed that all converter boxes are not created equal, and that's apparently the case. Microtune (a long-time U.S. supplier of digital TV tuners -- very big) has just sent a letter to the NTIA telling them that one certified box they tested in their ATSC lab failed!

Here's a sanitized copy of the letter. The name of the manufacturer and the box model have been beeped out, no doubt to avoid possible lawsuits.

Microtune suggests that in large areas of many metropolitan areas, the box in question will not perform as required on all channels. I'm assuming they are talking about multi-path interference, common where there are tall buildings.

They also say they bought the box in a large national retail chain store. I'm assuming that would be one of the above four chains, which between them are selling the LG boxes and the Magnavox box.

Microtune also said they met with the manufacturer in Japan. LG is a Korean company. The Magnavox boxes are reportedly made by Funai Electric Company, based in Japan. Funai has a close relationship with WalMart, reportedly deriving 30% of its net income from sales to that chain.

I'm therefore assuming that Microtune is talking about the Magnavox box sold by WalMart, but that's just idle speculation.

We'll see if anything comes of it.

The Community Broadcasters Association (the low-power TV people) have taken their complaints about converter boxes lacking an analog pass-through feature to Federal court. The CBA's suit asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to tell the FCC to require the offending boxes to comply with the law. The CBA says all TV receivers must be able to tune in all channels, in their complaint, including analog channels. I wouldn't bet on them winning their case.

The FCC has been putting them off.

The CBA had this to say: "We're very tired of people trying to marginalize our audience. It's blatantly disrespectful. We're not going to tolerate it."

Can't get no respect.

Until next week . . .

FCC consumer education workshop on Tuesday and their DTV Consumer Advisory committee meets on Friday.

More interesting will be the Senate DTV hearing that meets the following week (April 8), and perhaps of interest will be the FCC's monthly open meeting on the 10th.