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More High-Def Network News; Mobile TV Coming

April 20, 2008

This week: ABC and CBS join NBC with HD evening news; digital mobile TV; 76 converter box models--somewhere; DVD mythology; Amazon HD-DVD rebate; the 700 MHz spectrum auction; and more.

The big network evening news shows are working their way over to high-def -- incrementally. NBC was the first to make the switch, more than a year ago (March 26, 2007), but watch the show and you'll see that most of their news still comes 4:3 standard definition (SD). They're still ahead in the game, with their HD infrastructure starting to mature. NBC will cover both political conventions in HD.

CNN made the nominal jump to HD recently, but really just a first small step.

Both ABC (Good Morning America) and NBC (The Today Show) switched their morning "news" shows to HD a couple of years ago (or so), so you might expect that ABC would be moving ahead smartly with HD.

Its Sunday morning news/political commentary show "This Week" will switch over to high-definition later this month, coincident with its physical move into new Washington, DC, digs -- the "Newseum."

ABC will also cover the political conventions in HD, and transition its evening news shows (including "World News Tonight" and "Nightline") beginning September 8. So we still have a wait, but the light's there. As was the case with NBC, expect news from the field to be mostly 4:3 SD for the time being. But by the end of the year they expect to move most everything to widescreen, albeit in standard definition.

These things take time, you know?

CBS remains square and 480 both morning and evening, but that should start changing in June, when their high-definition control room is supposed to be ready. Political conventions will be HD and perky Katie's evening news will see HD hopefully starting in June, but I saw no specific date.

Again, expect to see field reports 4:3 SD, upconverted, for a long time (i.e. a couple of years).

A half-hour DTV transition special aired yesterday evening here in the Raleigh, NC television market. The educational piece was produced by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, and in a tactic used recently in the Washington, DC market, was aired simultaneously at 7:30 p.m. by all commercial stations (sort of like presidential press conferences). Hard to miss it.

The local PBS station is airing the special this evening.

The production was informative and entertaining, copying the memorable PC/Mac ads, except with "I'm digital, and I'm analog" talking heads inside TV screens hosting the special.

Introductions were made by FCC Chairman Martin and Commissioner Copps, with blurbs from others along the way (N.C. Governor, officials from the NAB and the NC Association of Broadcasters, an electrical engineering professor explaining "analog" versus "digital," a TV station engineer, and others.)

The show presented the history of television, the benefits of digital TV and HDTV, the uses that will be made of the spectrum freed up by the transition, who will be affected, what you need to do, converter boxes and coupons and how to connect them, etc.

Everything was great right up to the end, when the closing screen presented contact information to get more information and to apply for a converter box coupon. Unfortunately, the internet address they gave was incorrect -- "," instead of "" But on the whole, a very good effort.

My local NBC affiliate is advertising an upcoming news segment next Thursday with a secret-shopper undercover investigation of digital TV sales practices. I'll be watching; no doubt more of the same misleading and outright false pitches to get the customer to spend more money for things she thought she didn't need and didn't want.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) held it's annual shindig April 14-17 in Las Vegas. The transition to digital with all its ramifications was topic one, but the coming of age of mobile TV was hot. There was a demonstration of the mobile technology at the convention.

One big reason is money, of course. Broadcasters can add a mobile TV sub-channel by further dividing up their 6 MHz of digital spectrum, at a relatively modest cost. But revenues from new advertising are said to be on the order of $2 billion by 2012.

As I noted in an earlier article, trials to select and refine an ATSC mobile broadcast standard are underway and a standard is hoped to be completed by the end of the year, but more likely ready to go by the time the digital transition is complete. No telling when mobile receivers could be on the market.

Perhaps some prototypes will show up at CES 2009. In addition to dedicated mobile TVs, officials offered that cell phones and lapatop computers could get the requisite chips as well. The new mobile digital TV would be free over-the-air with an antenna, versus via wi-fi or over wireless telephone networks.

The NTIA has now certified a total of 76 converter boxes, 10 with an analog pass-through feature. The number is getting to be a little ridiculous.

There are now FOUR boxes to chose from the four main big chains selling the boxes (Best Buy, Radio Shack, WalMart, and Circuit City). Best Buy still has the Insignia, WalMart the Magnavox, and Circuit City the Zenith (Zenith and Insignia are the same), but Radio Shack has added the Digital Steam DTX9900 to the Zenith it already was selling. Both go for $60.

Digital Stream has EIGHT certified converter box models. All I know about the DTX9900 is that the remote uses two AAA batteries, instead of the one battery the Zenith/Insignia remote takes. Not sure if that will give you better range.

Neither does the Digital Stream DTX9900 include composite cables (yellow, red, white--that one). It does include a short coax antenna cable.

While checking to see if my local WalMart had added the RCA converter box that appears on their web site, I found no RCA box, but I did find a $45 RCA upconverting DVD player that claimed in large print the "highest quality" and "best high definition picture for your HDTV."

Clearly this is a blatantly fraudulent claim, but the average consumer tends to believe these things. You can't start with low-bit-rate 480i, convert it to 1080p, an expect to get anything close to the same detail, color accuracy, etc. that Blu-ray yields. Anything to make a buck, I guess.

I had planned on testing the "B" model RCA converter box, but no more. Still waiting for the Samsung box.

Amazon has decided to match Best Buy's consolation prize for disenchanted HD-DVD buyers; they are sending those Amazon customers $50 credits.

Off topic a little, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held an oversight hearing last week on the 700 MHz spectrum auction recently held by the FCC. That spectrum is currently used by TV channels 52 thru 69, and will become available, you guessed it, beginning February 18, 2009. It's called the 700 MHz spectrum because channel 52 starts at 698 MHz and channel 69 goes up to 806 MHz. (Post-transition digital TV channels will occupy less bandwidth -- channels 2-51 only.)

The auction yielded $19.6 billion, more than expectations and the largest haul ever for an FCC radio wave (or airwave, if you prefer) spectrum auction. It was broken up into "blocks," with AT&T and Verizon winning the lion's share, but with close to a hundred other smaller bidders walking away with lesser pieces of the pie.

The only block that was not sold was the "D" block, which was to have been for a hybrid public-private wireless system that would provide interoperable fire-police-homeland security radio communications (voice and data) during emergencies, and be available for private wireless services at other times. The private sector would pick up the tab for building out the system, but no takers met the reserve.

The Congressional hearing tried to find out why, and how a national emergency communications system could be put into place.

The Republicans (with exceptions) tended to say remove the conditions on the "D" block to maximize revenue to the government. They also suggested that it was a big mistake to impose conditions on "C" block spectrum, which required the winner (Verizon) to allow handset portability as part of the wireless services offered using that spectrum, and mandated that consumers using the services could use any applications they wanted (that would not harm the system). The policy is called "Open Access," or "Open Platform," and you'll be seeing more of this, thanks to the FCC.

Mostly the Democrats argued that public policy favoring the public/consumers should be more important than the bottom line. Priorities should be ordered: 1) public safety, 2) competition, and 3) revenues for the government.

Here's the link if you want to see a webcast of the hearing.

The FCC held its April meeting at Stanford University's Law School on the topic of broadband network management practices and other Internet-related issues. Of greatest interest was network neutrality (or net-neutrality) -- meaning carriers are not supposed to favor one content provider over another in access to the internet, either absolutely or by means of limiting bandwidth.

All of this takes place in the wake of revelations about Comcast blocking peer-to-peer file sharing. Comcast claimed it does it to manage congestion, but apparently Comcast blocks peer-to-peer traffic 24/7, not just during peak demand periods.

Comcast was invited (twice) but declined to attend.

If you're interested, an audio-only webcast is available at As of today, you could connect directly from this page, but later on you'll have to click on "Commission Meetings" under "A/V Archives."

Until next week . . .

The Senate is having its own internet hearing on Tuesday "The Future of the Internet". Go to this page at 10:00 a.m. Eastern time that morning if you want to check it out. ("The hearing will focus on developing applications, consumer expectations, and network operation.") Witnesses:

  • Ms. Justine Bateman, Actress / Writer / Producer

  • Ms. Michele Combs, Christian Coalition of America

  • Professor Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Law School

  • Mr. Kyle McSlarrow, National Cable & Telecommunications Association

  • Mr. Patric Verrone, Writers Guild of America, West

  • Dr. Robert Hahn, American Enterprise Institute