Digital TV Conversion for the Cotlar Household and Other Musings on Digital TV

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Why USDTV Failed

There's been a lot of news lately about the Chapter 7 bankruptcy of USDTV. If you recall, USDTV was attempting to aggregate excess spectrum to sell consumers a miniture package of TV channels for a subscription fee. Understandably it failed. Some commentators say it failed becasue there wasn't enough spectrum. Not true.

The real problem with USDTV is that it didn’t try to replicate the free-to-air model of the widely successful Freeview in the United Kingdom, which offers over 30 free TV channels and radio channels to boot. By starting out as a subscription service, USDTV in fact emulated the ITV model (also a subscription service), which crashed and burned in Britain in part because it couldn't afford soccer rights.

I think there is still a good opportunity for somebody to offer a free multichannel video service with a suite of channels more than one gets over the air but less than the pay services. Then the organization could upsell its viewers to various subscription packages in a model that would emulate a la carte, the holy grail of TV viewing. Freeview is doing just this through its “TopUp” program and is doing well. American entrepreneurs would do well to look overseas for some inspiration. But, alas, the myth of American exceptionalism is alive and well.

DTV Conversion Problems We Forgot to Think About

As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration considers new rules for implementing a federally subsidizes DTV converter box program, here are few other things to think about that haven’t yet been considered.

First, rural areas rely either partly or completely on TV reception from low power TV translators. There is no official analog shut-off date for this service, so analog transmissions in rural portions of America may actually persist beyond February 28, 2009. What happens, therefore, in a rural community that, for instance, gets 1 or 2 full power stations and a few more via translator? Analog gets terminated for the full power stations and the consumer plugs in a converter box gratis of the U.S. government, only to find that it can only receieve DIGITAL signals! He can’t receive the analog low power translators via the newly installed set-top box and will be angry no doubt. The solution? Either require analog tuners in the D to A converter box or a consumer has to install some sort of A/B switch to view some stations via the old tuner in his set and other stations via the conveter box’s digital tuner. What a mess.

Second, what about legacy VCRs? The reason you can record one channel off air while watching another channel off air is that you actually have 2 analog tuners: one in the TV set and one in the VCR. Plug in a converter box and guess what: this functionality will dissappear because there’s only one operational tuner! We need to either require 2 tuners in the converter box or have customers purchase two converter boxes, one for the VCR and one for the TV set. Another mess.

Friday, February 24, 2006

DTV Off-Air Reception and DTV Adoption

Although this blog originally started as an exploration of how to convert a moderately technically adept analog TV household to digital, I recognize I've digressed a bit lately. A flurry of new postings have impelled me to address the reception issue with greater fervor.

A January 30, 2006 article by Ben Drawbaugh, called "OTA HD Demystified," provides a very detailed description of how to get over-the-air DTV. His initial suggestion is to consult the CEA-sponsored Antenna Web (www.antennaweb.org) website, which is supposed to provide you with helpful direction regarding what kind of antenna to purchase. All you do is input your zip code (after refusing to provide personal information to CEA) and voila..... an absolutely unhelpful color coded chart of stations and next to each one the moniker of UHF or VHF as well as additional assorted information of no use whatsover (e.g."compass orientation"). Yeah, I need a combined VHF and UHF antenna: of course I could figure that out. So, as readers of this blog know, I did what most consumers would be most likely to do: go to the store and see what's available for purchase. I got a Terk low profile combined UHF/VHF antenna because it was on the shelf with a handful of its siblings and ... most importantly.... because it was amplified and my wife liked the low profile. Mr Drawbaugh's otherwise excellent article is actually a really good description of how many steps it does take if you're willing to get on the roof and install an outdoor antenna, complete with leads, splitters, amplifiers, rotors and the everpresent heart-pounding fear of plummeting 2 or more stories to your doom on the brick patio below. No way. Not for me.

Now that the analog shut-off deadline is for real and has no exeptions --- doomsday being Feb 17, 2009 --- policymakers need to carefully consider consumer education programs. The recently enacted Digital Transition and Public Safety Act allocates some money to the Department of Commerce to do this but not nearly enough-- a mere $5 million. Meanwhile, the FCC is asking for $500K worth for FY 2007 to conduct its own consumer education.

Here's what the FCC says at pp. 11-12 of the budget document. Notice the attempt to draft children to disseminate DTV information to parents! Innovative but a little creepy too.....

"DTV Consumer Education and Outreach: The $.5M requested for the proposed FY 2007 Digital TV (DTV) outreach initiative covers a wide-range of projects intended to deliver informatoin to U.S. consumers about the DTV transition. The goals of this initiative are to prepare the public for the transition, insure that all consumers can continue to view their TVs after the transition is complete, and provide unabiased and technologically and competitive neutral information so consumers can knowledgeably evaluate and purchase DTV products and services that are best suited for their needs.

These projects would primary use the media, Internet, publications, and particiation in forums and events to disseminate DTV information. The core media projects include multimedia public service announcements and media tours. Internet activities include expansion of the national DTV Web portal, www.dtv.gov, to include interactive tutorials and up-to-date information and Web capabilities. DTV publications woudl be printed and distributed to consumers who learn about them through our media activities. Event participation includes exhibiting and making presentatoins at major consumer-oriented seminars and converences such as the annual AARP Life@50+ even and National Council of La Raza conference.

DTV Transition information packages would be develped and distributed to local, state and federal government agencies and community organizations for use in conducting local DTV outreach programs. An innovative "DTV Deputy" program for children would be created to help teach kids about DTV and encourage them to take transition information to their parents and caregivers. DTV outreach projects will include components for providing transition information to low-income, minority and Non-English speaking consumers."

Meanwhile, consumer interest in digital tv is ..... well, it depends on who you ask.
Kagen reports HD sets comprise the majority of total set unit sales.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that:
  • While nearly everyone has heard of HDTV, only 15% of American families have gought one since their introduction in the late 1990s.
  • Only 15% more are seriously considering buying one in the near future.
  • More than 1/2 of current HDTV owners aren't really watching shows in HDTV.
  • About 40% ofHDTV owners know they're not watching HDTV.
  • About 17% believe they're watching HDTV but they're not actually doing so.
Ipso/Insight Polls indicate that despite falling prices, most consumers still consider HD too expensive. Again only 15% of those polled were ready to purchase a new HD set.

And of course, this is not to mention that industry analysts are still speaking primarily in terms of HDTV without recognizing the power of multiple SD digital channels to address niche markets.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Its Time to Liberate Free TV in the U.S.—We Need a FreeviewUSATM

Analog Shut-Off Should be Viewed as an Opportunity to Revitalize Broadcasting by Establishing a Free, Multichannel Wireless Broadcast Service

Broadcasters, Politicians and Consumers are rightly viewing the not-so-distant 2009 shut-off of analog TV service in the US with trepidation. But in Great Britain, digital television penetration is leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S. This is due largely to the introduction of Freeview—a freely available multichannel television and radio service that has been driving digital adoption at an incredible pace. This service, together with careful government planning and an active public education campaign, has enabled the Brits to be on the cusp of digital conversion like no other country.

In Great Britain, over-the-air DTV was initially introduced as a subscription service (ITV Digital), which subsequently failed to gain consumer acceptance due to a number of factors, including limited channels. Shortly afterwards, the government reclaimed spectrum from the failed subscription venture and reassigned it to a consortium of BBC, Sky and Crown Castle (a transmitter company), which engaged in a joint marketing effort, called Freeview, launched in October 2002. Through this service, homes with the ITV Digital boxes could receive a suite of TV and radio channels for free. Additional households could purchase inexpensive over-the-air digital set-top boxes to allow them to view digital signals on their analog sets. At present Freeview homes receive about 40 over-the-air channels, in addition to other services like music channels.

With prices for such equipment at about £50 per unit, the adoption of Freeview has been nothing short of phenomenal. One year after the introduction of Freeview, average sales of Freeview-compatible boxes were approaching 100,000 per month. In November of 2003, this increased to 100,000 units sold in a single week. By the end of the third quarter of 2005, Ofcom (the state telecommunications regulator) reports the number of Freeview households had increased to 5,775,768 -- effectively driving digital TV penetration in the UK to 65.9% of all UK households.

The UK plans on ceasing all analog television broadcasts by 2012, and Freeview has been instrumental in giving the government the level of comfort to establish this date. Led by the BBC and the national government, the planning process for analog switchover has been thorough and extensive. After numerous studies and commissions, the UK has established that it will shut off analog television broadcasts on a rolling geographic basis and has plans to conduct a large-scale switchover pilot to convert regions to digital-only broadcasting in the near future. Most recently, Ofcom has announced that it expects that the switchover process will be carried out over a period of four years between 2008 and 2012 on a region-by-region basis in six-month intervals. In fact, small scale pilots have already been conducted. On March 30, 2005, the UK government switched off analog television service in two small Welsh villages (totaling 450 homes), an initiative that has been met with apparent success. British authorities have also established an independent corporation, initially dubbed “SwitchCo” (later renamed DigitalUK) to coordinate a comprehensive publicity campaign and to manage the digital switchover process.

In this regard, the creation of a United States Freeview service --FreeviewUSATM-- could present a marketplace incentive to get over-the-air digital-to-analog converter equipment (or integrated sets with digital tuners) into the hands of consumers with a minimum of government intervention. In particular, it would better set the stage and prepare the ground for an eventual analog shut-off. Establishment of a United States Freeview service could also revitalize the over-the-air service by providing consumers with more free channels than are currently available. Moreover, if successful, it could also evolve into a competitive multichannel video service of its own, thus providing price competition to cable and satellite with the added benefit of reducing broadcasters’ reliance on cable and satellite for the distribution of their signals.

Broadcasters, consumer electronics manufacturers and others are already exploring the possibility of establishing something like this within the unique parameters of the United States market. However, most publicized efforts so far have focused on the creation of subscription-based services, rather than a free service (e.g. USDTV). This may be a mistake, as these initiatives have failed to attract significant numbers of subscribers.

Could an entirely free multichannel television service ignite consumer interest in the United States as it did in Britain? Or, alternatively, would an initial free service, later supplemented by a subscription-based tier (i.e. a hybrid free/pay service), make more sense to consumers and investors? Would consumers be willing to adopt this technology if it meant fewer channels as compared to cable but better price for a core of popular programming? While the uncertainties of introducing a new multichannel television service are numerous, the fact is that in Great Britain, Freeview has been an enormous consumer success. If something close to an equivalent can be established in the United States, those regions where United States Freeview is actively adopted – especially those regions with high broadcast reliance—may experience less of a disruptive digital switchover process than otherwise might occur.

Television as a Drug

Chris Rose comments in the Achorage Daily News that there's actual psychological evidence that TV watching can become an addiction. While others have made this claim with varying degrees of success, Rose's opinion piece serves as a useful warning. Is it something about TV itself? Or does any comforting, repetitive and isolating behavior readily lend itself to addiction (e.g. Internet use, Blackberry messaging, sports)?

Here's the real lesson with broader implications: to be a healthy person you need to engage in a diversity of activities. In this regard, I recall an article from somewhere that established that elderly people who continue to learn new things and engage in a range of activities are less likely to succumb to the memory loss and confusion associated with conditions like Alzheimers. Of course, I've forgotten where I read that, so perhaps I'm actually disproving my own point....

Here's a quote from Rose's op-ed piece, which you can find here.

It's really not too far of a stretch to liken people being "on" TV with people being "on" drugs. In fact, a study by Rutgers psychologist Robert Kubey concludes that millions of Americans are so hooked on television that they fit the criteria for "substance dependence" as defined by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Those symptoms include using TV as a sedative; indiscriminate viewing; feeling loss of control while viewing; feeling angry with oneself for watching too much; an inability to stop watching; and feeling miserable when kept from watching.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Is Free TV Finished? Why Its Too Early to Predict the Demise of Free Broadcasting.

Seemingly every day I hear the chattering classes (of which I'm a member) predict the demise of free broadcasting in favor of a subscription-based on-demand model. Variously, they predict that traditional broadcasters will go the way of the dinosaurs while (fill in the blank) Google, Yahoo, Verizon, ATT, Crown Castle, satellite, or even your local cable company, etc. will provide a much improved service. They predict, with some reason, that the age of a broadcast schedule designed to hit as broad a cross-section of humanity as possible without regard to particular interests is doomed in view of the "long tail" phenomenon. They predict that mass media will be supplanted by "my media" tailored to the consumer's unique interests. And they predict that consumers would rather pay for this privilege so they can receive what they want whenever they want. However, these predictions may be a case of punditry overkill for several reasons related to economics and basic human psychology .

First, our willingness to pay for subscription-based products is limited by our ability to pay -- of course! As the range of things that are free becomes replaced with subscription-based requirements (much like the "Enclosure" movement in the Middle Ages), consumers and their households will inevitably face greater pressure on their wallets. In other words, consider a world (not so far away) in which you have to pay for gas, groceries, schooling for the kiddies, commuting costs, health care, and on top of that: cell phone service, broadband access, TV service, satellite radio, and I-pod subscription. Surely the ability to pay is not infinite. Eventually the financially stressed household (of which the U.S. has many) will have to choose which things to pay for. Would they chose TV over groceries? Probably not. Admittedly, while our household is not representative (anecdote is not data), the reason why we cling to free TV is in part because we'd rather pay for other things.

Second, the predictions of these media technorati are premised on a misunderstanding of human nature. People don't often know what they want. They only have their wants clarified and confirmed by the influence of other people. This is why John Donne famously observed that "no man is an island." In this regard, cognitive psychologists have confirmed that many of our personality and cognitive traits derive from our sociability. No "recommender software" a la Amazon will be sufficiently able to replicate the power of the water cooler. Any technology that relies on isolating people within their bubble of experience will fail to recognize this basic human fact.

Third, people like to be surprised. The delight in the new and the excitement and feeling of discovery that accompanies the encounter with our peers is an indispensable element of what it means to be human. There is a deep human need for novelty that might not be best served by algorithms, no matter how complex, that seek in essence to pander to our expectations rather than broadening our horizons. While pandering may be one element of successful consumerism, it is not the only element. Morever, there are deeper human needs that are served by the broadcast media than the pleasure we experience in being pandered to. Broadcast provides a shared collective experience for people (like fathers and sons) who do not wish to talk to one another about other things.

Lastly, there is a deep human penchant for passivity that is not served by these new technologies that require active engagement. This is not to say that there is no role for interactivity. But a world of interactivity will never effectively supplant the human need for comfort, companionship and coercion (In this regard, George Orwell was a particularly perspicacious observer of the human condition) that broadcast media is particularly apt at exploiting.

On the whole, the new always-me, my-time technology may become a fixture of some (but not all) households within a certain class. But it will not effectively eliminate the enjoyment of broadcast media any time soon for the rest of us.




Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The End of TV? How to Avoid a Revolution when the Feds Shut off Analog TV, Lessons from Europe.

You may have heard that Congress will soon impose a hard date for the shut-off of analog TV broadcasts in the U.S. -- February 17, 2009. And you may have heard that their solution has been, well, let's say its less than satisfying if you don't want to pony up the monthy cash for a subscription service. Could Congress have done anything else? Consider the following article, written by yours truly last year. For the full text, you need to have access to LEXIS or WESTLAW (oh, how ironic!). [Or, if you're really nice to me, email me at andrew@apts.org and I'll send you a hard copy.]


Here's the abstract as published by CommLaw Conspectus and a link to their home page.

THE ROAD TO ANALOG SWITCH-OFF: HOW THE UNITED STATES CAN TURN OFF ITS ANALOG TELEVISION SERVICE WITHOUT SIGNIFICANT SERVICE DISRUPTION

The article argues that, based on the lessons learned from Germany and Great Britain, the cessation of analog service need not be sudden, harsh or disorienting. To accomodate consumers who rely either exclusively on over the air reception or subscribe to ditigal tv service for only one household tv, the author argues for some means to subsidize the purchase of set top converters for these types of consumers. The article argues for a gradual cessation of analog service where analog service would be shut off on a rolling geographic or market basis, coupled with a gradual decrease in power levels over time. As in many European nations, the article argues for adequate and continuing publicity about the switch from analog to digital. Finally, the article argues for the private industry to replicate an equivalent in the U.S. of Great Britain's Freeview service--a freely-available package of digital multichannel programming that has successfully been driving consumer adoption of digital television in that country.

And here's the actual, full introduction to the article with more detail.

The American media landscape is undergoing a fundamental transformation as the television broadcast service transitions to a wholly digital infrastructure. Initiated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1987, and subsequently amended and modified by a series of FCC orders and Congressional acts, including the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the digital television (DTV) transition promises to revolutionize television. The inherent flexibility of DTV allows for the transmission of high-definition programming or the simultaneous transmission of multiple standard definition programming as well as ancillary data delivery. This flexibility can bring a new range of wireless entertainment and educational experiences to the American public that were not possible before.

Moreover, the DTV transition will require the return of 108 MHz of analog TV spectrum in the 700 MHz band back to the federal government and a repacking of the TV band into the core of channels 2 through 51. A portion of the former TV channels at 700 MHz is slated to be assigned for public safety purposes (24 MHz at the spectrum between 764 MHz through 806 MHz), while the remaining portion will be assigned for advanced wireless purposes through existing auction procedures. As a result, a successful DTV transition has the potential to enhance public safety, encourage the deployment of innovative wireless services to the American public, provide an estimated $4-17 billion to the U.S. Treasury and contribute an even greater amount – estimated to be between $30-60 billion annually -- to the U.S. economy by spurring economic development.

To bring about a successful transition to DTV, Congress has mandated, and the FCC has implemented, a highly complex plan that involves the allocation of a second DTV channel to nearly all incumbent full power television broadcasters, the mandated build-out of digital facilities (and penalties for non-compliance), the creation of numerous service rules for digital broadcasts, limited cable carriage of DTV broadcast signals, and the eventual reclamation of channels used for analog transmission by the end of 2006 with market-by-market extensions allowed in cases where 15% or more households cannot receive the digital signals of over-the-air television stations.

Only recently, however, have lobbyists and policymakers in Washington turned their attention to how analog switch-off should be implemented without causing major disruptions in service. In other words, once the DTV transition is completed, what will the final days look like? Will there be a gradual and largely unnoticed cessation of analog service? Or will there be a sudden, harsh and disorienting process that harms consumer interests and provokes a political backlash?

This article argues that, based on the lessons learned from Germany and Great Britain, the cessation of analog service need not be sudden, harsh or disorienting. Rather, an effective analog cessation plan can be crafted to accommodate those consumers who either (a) rely exclusively on over-the-air reception or (b) subscribe to a digital multichannel television service for one television set but who possess additional television sets that are not connected. In this regard, there must be some means of subsidizing the purchase of digital-to-analog set-top converters for millions of households of this type. This article sets out what kind of subsidy could be used and how it could be implemented. In addition, consistent with proposals in Europe, this article advocates a gradual cessation of analog television service–a “fade to black” approach whereby analog service would be shut off on a rolling geographic or market basis, coupled with a gradual decrease in power levels over time as digital broadcasters increase to full power. This article also argues, as various European nations have recognized, that there must be adequate and continuing publicity through a wide range of media concerning the schedule for analog cessation and options for continuing to receive broadcast television. To accomplish this purpose, the Federal Government should create an independent quasi-governmental entity – SwitchCoUSA— that is modeled on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Science Foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lastly, this article proposes that it would be helpful, though not necessary, to the success of any analog cessation plan for private industry to replicate an equivalent in the U.S. of Great Britain’s Freeview service—a freely-available package of digital multichannel programming that has proven successful in driving consumer adoption of DTV in that country.

Part I of this article provides an overview of the DTV transition to date and describes the issues with which Washington policymakers are faced concerning how to manage the cessation of analog television in the United States. Part II describes the European experience with DTV, as various European Union (EU) countries begin the process of planning for a cessation of analog broadcast television. Particular focus is placed on Germany and Great Britain and the lessons to be learned from the advanced deployment of DTV in those countries. Part III identifies the consumer impact of analog cessation in the United States, providing information on the extent and nature of reliance on over-the-air broadcasting in this country. Lastly, Part IV discusses targeted solutions to ensure a smooth post-analog transition, including subsidies for the purchase of converter equipment, a gradualist approach to shutting down analog service, the institutions and public outreach necessary to prevent massive disruption, and the importance of establishing a freely available digital broadcast service.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Kudos to an interesting article on DTV terrestrial reception that can be found at the Washington Post today. Here's the link. People are just beginning to understand the power of terrestrial DTV to bring multiple free steams of content. By the way, the multiple streams on local public TV stations, here in Washington, include kids programming on the weekend, which is a great hit with the youngsters in my household.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Although it has been quite a while since I updated this blog, Dennis Haarsager, a technorati and intellectual light from the West Coast has posted a very cogent reminder concerning DTV off-air reception that you should read. I encourage everyone to take a look. Here's the link.