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Weather Channel Goes High-Def; Lots More

June 1, 2008

Too much stuff this week. Maybe next week will be quiet.

The Weather Channel makes its grand entrance into the world of high-definition tomorrow, with the debut of a brand new HD studio (I only put this first because I have a picture). Two-way plug-and-play cable navigation devices arrive this year by way of the back door. OLED TV technology showing more signs of life. A Nielsen DTV transition readiness report. Converter box update. Wilmington goings-on. Digital reception issues more widespread. And various FCC actions.

The Weather Channel began experimenting with HD cameras a couple of years ago, and starting airing two or three of its feature programs in high-def beginning last fall. Now with the completion of a four-story-high all-HD studio (in a brand new building), it's plunging in all the way.

Morning and evening studio-sourced programming will begin in HD right away, with the rest of the schedule switching over to HD over the next several months. Select field HD coverage of severe weather will begin today, the first day of hurricane season.

At the center of the 5,000 square-foot studio is a chrome-and-acrylic rotating console enabling the seven different sets on the studio's periphery to be brought into view, to suit particular programs. Each set has multiple HD video displays.

A 37-foot long projection screen will be used for maps, graphics, video, and live shots from the field.

HD programming will be in 1080i and carried by lots of cable systems, plus the satellite guys.

You may recall my May 4 story on lost FCC transition milestones -- one of those being the adoption of a plug-and-play standard for bi-directional (interactive, 2-way) cable navigation devices (a.k.a. cable set-top-boxes, including those effectively built into a TV). Back on June 29, 2007, the FCC essentially proposed picking a standard from the two competing proposed standards from the cable and consumer electronics industries, the latter seeming to have decidedly more benefits for the consumer.

This was after years of stone-walling by the cable industry on an open, competitive standard. The cable industry wanted it their way.

Okay, so the FCC never did anything. Maybe their proposed rule was a ploy to get the industry back to the negotiating table. Whatever it was, there now seems to be a de-facto standard, and that standard is the proprietary one the cable industry wanted. As in, not an FCC-sanctioned standard.

The cable industry strategists/lobbyists are good at what they do (political-wise). I'll give them that much.

The new standard has been given the more consumer-friendly marketing name "tru2way." The old name was OCAP (for OpenCable Application Platform). Not really so open, though.

How did the cable guys pull off this coup?

Divide and conquer. Get that camel's nose in the tent. Little by little. Play on the consumer electonics companies' impatience to get a cable navigation device built into their TV sets.

Last January at CES 2008 the cable industry announced a deal with Panasonic. They would take a chance and build the cable box circuitry into Panasonic TVs. It would give them a competitive advantage over their rivals; buy a Panasonic TV and you won't need one of those ugly cable set-top-boxes.

Other TV manufacturers perhaps got a little nervous, even if they still wanted an open standard that would let them control the applications they could offer the consumer -- make them better, more innovative, easier to use, nicer to look at -- make them different than the standard cable company mush.

One by one they capitulated, until this past Tuesday Sony announced that it too would join the club. Sony's agreement was with Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision and Bright House Networks. That's 82% of cable customers in the U.S. Smaller cable companies just go along for the ride, once they install OCAP equipment.

The cable lobby (NCTA) hailed the landmark agreement (Sony is the big fish, without which the takeover would not have worked.) Even Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, admitted defeat, with spin:

"We are pleased that this technical challenge has been addressed through a voluntary, private-sector solution. We look forward to working with our cable colleagues to ensure Americans across the country have access to high value cable content while using the equipment of their choosing."

Tru2way will replace the hardware-based uni-directional (one-way) CableCard, which pretty much nobody liked, most especially the cable companies.

From the Sony/Cable press release:

"This negotiated industry agreement establishes the fundamentals for a competitive retail market for "two-way" digital cable-ready devices. It addresses how such products will be brought to market with interactive services like video-on-demand, digital video recording and interactive programming guides. In addition, the agreement makes it clear that consumers will be able to enjoy a choice of differentiated two-way products at retail and through cable operators from a variety of consumer electronics and information technology manufacturers. The agreement includes safeguards to facilitate the development of a robust, two-way retail market and to ensure that cable operators can continue to develop and offer new competitive services."

Sure sounds good, but who knows what all that really means. The agreement is secret, and the standard, as near as I can tell, is still being worked out, and in any case will remain secret. No TVs with tru2way have been announced.

The deal has been described as a "groundbreaking compromise," so we'll have to wait and see.

"As part of the agreement, the parties will adopt: the Java-based "tru2way" solution as the national interactive "plug-and-play" standard; new streamlined technology licenses; and new ways for content providers, consumer electronics manufacturers, information technology companies and cable operators to cooperate in evolving the tru2way technology at Cable Television Laboratories (CableLabs), the cable industry's research and development consortium."

In the past, consumer electronics manufacturers had argued that the cable proposal left total control of technical standards and licensing conditions in the hands of CableLabs. Has that changed? The agreement seems to be a framework for continued negotiations.

"Detailed terms of the MOU have not yet been released, while other potential signatories complete their review of the document."

Yes, apparently no more than a memorandum of understanding. As they say, stay tuned.

Nielsen Media Research has just published a slick new report titled "The February 2009 Digital Television Transition: Overview of the Digital Readiness of U.S. Households and Analysis of Viewing to Unready Sets."

That's the Nielsen TV ratings people, and they've used their survey data to answer the question -- How many people are ready to make the transition to digital? Not on February 17, 2009, mind you, but on April 30, 2008. That kinda detracts from its value somewhat, but they've got lots of data in tables. etc. They sort out results by city, ethnicity, age, etc.

Nothing that go me excited, but click on the link if you're interested.

Are OLED TVs getting ready for prime time? That's Organic Light Emitting Diode TV, the ones that have phosphor emissive displays that are about as thick as a piece of (thin) cardboard. Really high contrast ratios. Like the 11" one Sony is selling for just $2500.

Well, now Sony is claiming that it will start making "medium to large size" OLED TVs next year. Something like 20" to 40".

You may recall that SED holy-grail TVs were to have hit the market in 2007, and have now just about disappeared from the collective consciousness of TV technology fans everywhere. Will OLED be different?

Oh well. I'm waiting for an affordable local-dimming LED-backlight LCD. Sigh.

Converter boxes

86 now certified, 19 with analog pass-through. Other NTIA statistics still date from April 21.

About a week ago the coupon web site was reporting that applications approved May 23 - June 6 would be mailed out on June 6. Oh, they've eliminated their backlog! But shortly after that, the information was changed so that if an application was approved May 23 - May 30, the coupon would be mailed out on June 20.

That's three weeks after the last approval, which is worse than the previous mailing. What's strange is that they had been mailing out coupons every Friday, and now the latest mailing indicated is three weeks after the previous mailing.

Not sure what that means. Do they want to return to their big backlog? Did they run out of coupons?

No idea.

Best Buy has pledged to start selling a second model converter box in addition to its own Insignia brand box. The new box will have an analog pass-through, and should be available starting this summer.

If you want to convert a non-pass-through box so it will allow analog signals to go directly to your TV, Best Buy says it will start selling an "accessory kit" to do that (two-way splitter, cables, instructions).

Finally, the FCC will hold a special converter box workshop on June 19. The show will be webcast live but the FCC's antiquated system can only accommodate 200 viewers. I'll have more info closer to the date.

Related news is that Wilmington, NC electronics retailers yesterday offered "their in-store customers a demonstration of the benefits of digital broadcasting as well as the opportunity to ask experts from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the transition."

Yesterday, May 31, marked 100 days until Wilmington's commercial broadcasters shut off their signals as an early preview of what the rest of the country will experience on February 17, 2009.

The FCC is encouraging Wilmington analog, over-the-air viewers to immediately order their converter box coupons, or failing that, plan to buy a digital TV.

FCC Commissioner Copps was in Wilmington on May 27 and made a speech at a Town Hall DTV meeting. Very nice, the usual stuff, two pages.

The TV trade site TV had a story out last week that spoke to the problem of many people needing to upgrade their antennas for good digital TV reception. This is something that has become all too apparent in recent months, although within certain industry circles has been discussed for a good many years.

Also apparent is the reluctance of some within the industry to openly acknowledge the extent of the problem. Don't rain on my party, as it were.

The article cites a recent study that sheds some light on the scope of the problem, which contrary to common mythology, is worse in cities than in rural areas (where big outdoor antennas are more common). Cities are subject to multipath interference and other maladies, and city dwellers are more likely to use indoor rabbit ear antennas.

The FCC has canceled the freeze on broadcaster applications to increase the signal reach of their digital channels. The freeze had been in place so that the Commission could sort out all the digital channel assignments and interference potentials between stations for the final DTV table of allotments. They didn't want a moving target.

Now they've processed everything and can get back to the routine of station change approvals. All that means that there is the potential for bad digital reception for some people to improve -- in the fullness of time (or sooner).

The Commission has also announced those clarifications about the PSIP rules. To the delight of broadcasters everywhere, it agreed with them that "real-time updates to the Event Information Table (EIT) are permissive and not required under the new PSIP standard adopted in the Order," although they also encouraged stations "to update the EIT as rapidly as possible when overages or other circumstances result in changes to scheduled programs."

So, what that means is don't trust your electronic program guide to tell you when a program will actually start, especially if it comes on after a football game.

Until next week . . .

The week after that we have -- on June 9 comments are due on the NTIA's proposal to allow assisted care home residents to obtain converter box coupons, etc., and on June 10 there will be another Congressional hearing (House) on the status of the DTV transition.