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New Sony TVs; Education Hits and Misses

June 8, 2008

More cool new TVs arriving. Hooray! Some good education moves by the FCC, and well-intended efforts by broadcasters that fell short. Another snippet about our good honest cable companies.

Sony announced a slew of new XBR LCD HDTVs on Thursday. Among them, their new flagship XBR8 (46" and 55") with LED backlighting.

The backlights use clusters of red, green, and blue LEDs -- Sony calls this "TRILUMINOS" technology. It makes possible more saturated colors, although the benefits of exceeding the current color standards for ATSC TVs will be limited for the forseeable future.

It does mean, however, that any color encoded in TV programming today, including Blu-ray, should be easily reproduced by these new sets.

What's more promising is that the XBR8 backlights do local dimming (Sony calls their version ACE PRO -- Advanced Contrast Enhancer). This should increase dynamic video range -- higher contrast ratios, better blacks.

What is unclear is how many individually controllable LED clusters the backlight uses. If they have divided the screen into just four areas, then the improvement will be marginal. If more than a thousand, it will be spectacular. I suspect the number will be closer to the former. (Have to start somewhere.)

We'll know in a few months. The 46" KDL-XBR8 will go on sale in the August-September time frame; the 55" version will come out September-October. No prices yet.

Both have 120 Hz 10-bit panels and 10-bit processing. The video processor is Sony's latest Bravia Engine 2 PRO, which is shared with the 70" XBR7 set, available October-November (now that's a big TV!).

The other XBR7 TV, a 40" set (also October-November), uses the Bravia Engine 2 Ex processor. Both XBR7 sets use a conventional fluorescent backlight, but like all the new XBR sets, have a 120 Hz refresh frame rate.

Three new XBR6 models were announced (40", 46", and 52"), joining the 32" and 37" XBR6 sets already announced. All are Full-HD models (1920 x 1080).

Availability for these sets is: 32" June, 37" July-August, 40" September-October, 46" October-November, and 52" September-October. The three new/larger models in this series have 120 Hz/10-bit panels and 10-bit processors.

If you like color accents, you can buy optional silver, red, brown or gold color grilles for any of these XBR TVs. The XBR8 and XBR7 come with black grille covers; the XBR6 ships with silver.

The FCC has recorded and distributed a series of DTV education spots to radio stations everywhere. 15, 30, and 60 seconds. They're actually quite good. For a listen, go to this page and scroll down a bit. Click on the audio file of your choice, available in a variety of formats. There are also a few video spots on the same page.

The FCC has also created a billboard graphic to advertise the transition. Yes, a billboard!

These billboards will be placed in approximately 45 of the 210 television markets. You can already see them Philadelphia, Tampa, San Francisco, and Seattle.

The same graphic will also go up in buses and subways in the largest metropolitan areas.

Wilmington, NC, will get specialized "First in Flight, First in Digital" PSAs and billboards to aid in their early transition.

They need it. According to a recent NAB survey, only 18 percent of Wilmington television households were aware that analog would be shut-off in that city on September 8, now three months away. 26 percent said analog would be shut-off on February 17, 2009, which would be right if they lived someplace else. That leaves 56 percent who didn't know either date.

89 percent had heard or read there would be a switch to a new digital TV standard.

And Ignorance Begat Confusion

I still hear DTV education spots that equate antennas with analog TVs, as in, if you use an antenna, you're going to need a converter box. Maybe, or maybe not.

My local PBS station ran an hour-long DTV education call-in-with-questions show last week. The on-screen panel consisted of four of their management types, including the head of engineering. Very commendable.

They interspersed live viewer questions with a few taped DTV tutorials.

One was an interview with a Circuit City employee who said that "if you have an analog TV -- that means rabbit ears directly into the TV --" Argh!

Unfortunately, neither did the PBS panelists know as much about the transition as they thought.

Examples of questions they got, and answers provided:

Q: How do you record on an analog VCR using a converter box. A: Connect the converter box to the VCR and thence to the TV, and program the converter box to record the programs.

Well, you can't program a converter box. It will receive the channel you manually select, but you cannot tell it to switch to another channel after recording one program. They clarified this about ten minutes after answering the question incorrectly. My guess is one of their better informed minions pointed out their mistake.

Q: Can I use my coupons to buy converter boxes for my elderly parents? A: No. They would have to order the coupons for themselves and have them sent to their own home address.

Actually, it's fine with the government if you use your coupon to buy a converter box for somebody else, but you will only get two. The NTIA actually suggested that people do this for their parents who are in nursing homes, etc. The idea is for everyone who needs a converter box to get one, not to make it difficult. But certainly they don't want you to sell your coupons on eBay.

Q: Are digital TV signals harder to receive? A: It's hard to predict, but reception is better with an outdoor antenna.

Unfortunately, they did not tell this person about, which would have given him some guidance about digital reception. And using an outdoor antenna if you're relatively close to a TV transmitter should not give you better reception. In fact, when there is a very strong signal, a large antenna's substantial gain can overload a digital receiver.

Q: I'm having trouble finding a converter box and my coupons expire at the end of the month. Can I reapply for additional coupons? A: They suggested that she contact the NTIA; they would renew or extend her coupons for her.

That is absolutely WRONG! When they expire, you've had your chance. They should have asked her to look at the list of local brick and mortar stores that came with her coupons, and should have told her about the telephone and internet retailers who will redeem coupons toward the purchase of converter boxes. For example, you can use your coupons to order converter boxes by telephone from Best Buy (1-877-BBY-DTV9 / 1-877-229-3889) and Radio Shack (1-877-RS-DTV-4U / 1-877-773-8848).

Q: I have a digital TV that has great analog reception but gets no digital channels. What's wrong? A: Check your owner's manual; there must be a menu item to switch between analog and digital reception.

Well, that wasn't very helpful. And I've never heard of a digital TV not tuning in both analog and digital channels from the remote. They should have asked him about how he selects his digital channels (e.g. using 7-2 format?); if he simply presses the old channel number, he will get only analog channels.

Another possibility is that his "digital" TV is actually one of the "HD-Ready" sets that were pervasive a few years ago. Those sets had only an analog tuner; the TV industry for years successfully fought a proposed FCC requirement mandating digital tuners in new TVs. If he indeed owned an "HD-Ready" TV, he would need to buy a separate digital receiver. He could use a converter box but would not get high-definition.

The problem with the moderators was that they never engaged the callers in a clarifying discussion about the problem. They simply listened to the question and offered an answer -- often apparently making one up.

On converter boxes, a moderator declared that some converter boxes have signal strength meters. In fact, if he had been familiar with the NTIA requirements for coupon eligible converter boxes, he would have known that all boxes are required to have signal strength meters.

And so it went.

I finally got a response to an e-mail I sent to my local CBS affiliate's chief engineer. I asked when they might be going to implement the ATSC Active Format Description (AFD) data standard -- the one that banishes the tiny postage stamp video common to 4:3 TVs displaying digital programming.

He told me - "We plan to include it when we rebuild the tech plant in the new year." I assume that means next year, a year from now, eventually.

In the meantime people not ready to upgrade to widescreen TVs should keep their fingers on their zoom buttons.

Of note, this station -- WRAL, in Raleigh, NC -- was the first commercial station in the country to go on the air with a digital channel, and the first to launch their local news in high-definition. They have a state-of-the-art high-definition-equipped helicopter, and their sprawling studio campus has extensive formal gardens (open to the public) with a fountain and an acre of azaleas.

And yet they can't manage a simple AFD upgrade. Their digital channel's audio dialnorm seems also to be off -- the volume is much louder than other channels. If this is the attention to detail we get from a digital pioneer, it's certain we can't expect much from all those hundreds of lesser stations.

And how about cable service? There was an article on a couple of days ago entitled LA sues Time Warner Cable over lousy service.

Los Angeles is hauling Time Warner Cable into court, accusing the company of lying to customers and providing shoddy service. The city is seeking tens of millions in fines for "unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business acts and practices and deceptive advertising."

Is that all?

Until next week . . .

On Monday comments are due on the NTIA's proposal to allow assisted care home residents to obtain converter box coupons, etc.

On Tuesday the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet will hold a hearing "Status of the DTV Transition: 252 Days and Counting." Among the topics will be the Wilmington early-transition end test, and the converter box coupon program. There will be two panels of witnesses.

1st -- FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, an NTIA associate administrator (coupons), and the author of the recent GAO report on the transition.

2nd -- the head of a company that owns 40 TV stations, a Radio Shack senior VP, the person at IBM responsible for administering the coupon program, Time-Warner Cable's man in Wilmington, and someone from Nielsen (the TV ratings company).

The DTV PSIP clarification decision that had been planned to be released at Thursday's FCC meeting came out last week, as meticulous readers of this column already know (note that I felt the need to mention it again).

An off-topic Senate Commerce Committee hearing is set for Wednesday: "Impact and Policy Implications of Spyware on Consumers and Businesses." Congress considered legislation last year that would not have done much about the problem because business lobbyists convinced legislators there was a legitimate need for collecting marketing information via mechanisms that could not be differentiated from what spyware does.

"The hearing will examine the impact of spyware on computer performance and privacy and security risks associated with this software. The Committee will review current action by the Federal Trade Commission to combat spyware and its effects on consumers. In addition, the hearing will consider S. 1625, the Counter Spy Act, which was introduced on June 14, 2007, by Senator Pryor and was cosponsored by Senator Bill Nelson and Senator Barbara Boxer."

I plan to listen in to see if anything useful falls out. If so, I may mention it next time.