Posts Tagged ‘HDTV’
Biting The Hand That Feeds You
- Published on Friday, 28 October 2011 16:10
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
If you haven’t tried the Mohu leaf antenna, it’s quite the handy gadget. Basically, it is a single-bay UHF TV collinear antenna made out of flexible conductors, and sealed in a waterproof thin plastic shell that resembles a placemat from a diner.
I’ve had the Leaf for a few months now and can say that it works very well for UHF TV reception – certainly no better or worse than any other collinear antenna system I’ve tried – and does a passable job on highband VHF DTV stations, if they are strong enough. It’s reasonably priced at $45 and includes free shipping, so you really can’t go wrong with it.
Now, here’s where things get hilarious. Apparently Mohu tried to run a thirty-second ad on Time Warner’s cable TV systems in Columbus, OH and Kansas City, MO; touting the benefits of free, over-the-air television. And TW said, “no!”
A resulting press release from Mohu reads, “The planned Leaf thirty second spot actually states that customers do not need “expensive cable service to watch HD programs” and that “most top-rated shows are broadcast free, over the air in full high definition.”
Hmmm. Think that had anything to do with Time Warner’s refusal to run the ad?
We may never know the whole story, but you can see the Mohu commercial here on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNtll-4fiis.
Are Pro Sports Leagues Killing The Golden Goose?
- Published on Thursday, 08 September 2011 17:50
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
An article in today’s Los Angeles Times asks if the TV broadcast rights fees paid to sports leagues are reaching the breaking point for many subscribers. Currently; CBS, Fox, and ESPN are forking over $3.1 billion a year to broadcast 16 games, preseason, and playoffs, plus the Super Bowl. And those contracts will be up for renegotiation in two years.
For those of you who don’t know, the most expensive pay TV channel in terms of per-viewer fees is ESPN, which commands nearly $5 per subscriber in some markets (about $4 per sub here in the Philadelphia market). The pile of cash generated by those per-subscriber fees is what has allowed ESPN to cover last year’s World Cup in 3D, not to mention lock up the exclusive rights to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) college football games.
It also allows ESPN to bid aggressively against conventional TV networks to secure rights to the top sporting events. Recently, ESPN snatched away the TV rights to the Wimbledon tennis tournament from NBC, which had broadcast it for the past 43 years.
“OK, what do those two things have to do with each other?” you’re thinking right now. Simple: As ESPN takes in more money from subscribers, it has more to throw on the table for future rights negotiations, ensuring that more and more HDTV coverage of professional sports will migrate to pay channels from free networks.
And Comcast is getting into the act with its Versus channel, which now carries NHL games and is expected to be a major bidder in the future for TV coverage of pro sports. Not only that, each of the major sports leagues now has its own TV channel (MLB, the NFL Network, NBA TV), and a select number of games are available on each channel for an additional per-subscriber fee.
Even colleges are joining the fun, with the University of Texas, the Big 12, the Pac 10, and the Big Ten all operating or getting ready to launch TV channels.
A few years ago, I predicted to my old college roommate that eventually, ALL sports would wind up on pay TV channels, whether they be within the ESPN family, Versus, or one of the league TV channels. It looks now like that day isn’t too far off.
The Times article quoted representatives of cable and satellite TV networks as saying that we’ve reached the breaking point with regards to per-subscriber charges, and that subscribers are dumping cable and satellite packages accordingly to cut costs.
Another reason that TV broadcast rights have gotten so expensive is because ratings for just about everything else on TV have diminished. It’s a classic application of the law of diminishing returns: As the number of pay TV channels increases, each program attracts smaller audiences.
On the other hand, sporting events draw big numbers, particularly NFL games, each of which drew an average of 18 million viewers last season, mostly men ages 18 to 34. And advertisers will pay plenty to reach those viewers. (Think beer and car ads.)
Representatives of Mediacom (a small cable TV system operator) and DirecTV both believe that sports programming should be carried on a separate, premium tier. If viewers want to ante up the big bucks to see the Longhorns play the Sooners, or UCLA and USC duke it out, then let them. But don’t force other subscribers to foot the bill, too.
The various sports entities don’t want to discuss such an approach, as it would seriously dilute the number of subscribers and put a dent in revenue. Yet, we are seeing increasing evidence that average viewers think pay TV is just too darn expensive and are either dropping channel packages or ‘cutting the cord’ by moving to Internet video and terrestrial HDTV to save money.
The irony is that many of the collegiate bowl games will involve publicly-funded universities, and the taxpayers who subsidize those universities won’t be able to watch unless they pay extra for the privilege.
Keep that in mind as you enjoy your Sunday and Monday NFL games in HD this fall. You may not be able to do that for too many more years.
Sony: “Make. Believe” Isn’t Making It Anymore
- Published on Monday, 08 August 2011 11:02
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
An August 2nd Reuters news story said that Sony is preparing to overhaul its LCD television business to reduce costs and attempt to remain competitive against the likes of Samsung and LG. That means selling off TV factories to Chinese companies such as Foxconn Technology (manufacturers of the iPad) and moving more and more to a Vizio-style rebranding model.
Sony’s TV business has lost money for eight consecutive years, which about as long as Sony has been selling Bravia LCD TVs. The company cut its sales forecast for the current fiscal year by 19% to 22 million units, and now there is talk among analysts of the possibility that Sony might exit the TV business altogether – something that is almost inconceivable, given Sony’s long involvement with television.
But the facts are hard to argue with. Ever since Sir Howard Stringer took over at the helm six years ago, Sony Corporation has lost 50% of its market value. According to the Reuters story, Sony is currently valued at just $25 billion, less than 25% of the market valuation of Samsung.
Over the years, pursuing profitability in the TV business has led Sony to form an alliance with Samsung (S-LCD), announce plans to take a 34% investment stake in Sharp’s Gen 10 LCD fab (later pruned back to less than 10%), and search high and wide throughout Taiwan and Hong Kong to find a competitive source for the smaller LCD panel TV sizes that still dominate the market.
Sony’s initial TV strategy was to position themselves as an Apple-like brand, getting people to pony up a premium for a perceived advantage in Sony product quality and engineering smarts. Trouble was; it was all too easy to surf the Internet and discover that smaller Sony LCD TVs were being sourced from many of the same manufacturers as 2nd-tier LCD TV brands.
Sony’s “own the manufacturing chain” business model was blown out of the water by Vizio, the ultimate OEM TV partner, who spent millions of dollars in advertising and went for the jugular with aggressive pricing in wholesale clubs and discount outlets. And of course, Samsung is responsible for much of Sony’s misery, given how aggressively the Korean TV giant followed its ten-year blueprint to become “the next Sony.”
It doesn’t help that 3D and Google TV have done little to stem the losses. 3D TV is still struggling to gain widespread acceptance and will likely become just another option built-in to all future TVs; one that cannot command a premium.
Google TV is even more of a bust. If you’ve ever had a chance to use the remote control for Sony Internet TVs, you’ll know why: It’s complicated and intimidating to use. People like the idea of watching Internet-delivered video, but they don’t want to search for it with a computer-like interface.
To make matters worse, the Sony name doesn’t command respect like it used to. Interbrands’ annual survey of global brands places Samsung 15 places above Sony. That is mind-boggling, given the strong brand equity Sony used to have.
The Reuters story states that Sony could lose close to a billion dollars this year in its TV operations, and that would push total losses to almost $5 billion since 2004. So the question is – how long will Sony continue to spill red ink?
One obvious solution to the problem is for Sony to wash its hands of TV manufacturing completely and instead license the Sony name to a line of OEM TVs, much like Kodak is doing these days with digital cameras and photo frames.
There is a precedent: Earlier this year, CE manufacturing giant Philips threw in the towel on its TV business, citing increasing losses and an inability to remain competitive even on its home turf in Europe. Going forward, Philips has licensed its brand to Funai for all future Philips LCD TV manufacturing.
By following this model, Sony could finally achieve profitability in the TV game. Ironic, isn’t it?
Useful Gadgets: RCA DMT336R Mobile DTV/ATSC Pocket TV
- Published on Thursday, 28 July 2011 18:00
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
It’s hard to believe it’s been just 13 years since the digital TV transition started in 1998 when TV stations WFAA and WRAL first signed on the air.
Back then, ‘watching digital TV’ meant shelling out a couple thousand dollars for a large, energy-guzzling converter box and experimenting with different antennas to try and pull in the signals, which (more often than not) dropped out or froze up.
Fast-forward to 2011: The DTV transition has been history for two years. Every new TV has a built-in ATSC tuner, and the adaptive equalizers in that tuner work so well that signal drop-out from fading and multipath is mostly an unpleasant memory. In fact, ATSC set-top receivers are mostly a memory now, given that you can a new LCD or plasma digital TV for about $10 per diagonal inch.
Even computers can join in the fun, thanks to the latest generation of ‘plug and play’ USB stick tuners from companies like Hauppauge that let you use your laptop or desktop as a fully-featured DVR. Just add an antenna, and you’re ready to go.
Along the way, several manufacturers found the time to bring out some models of portable digital TVs. This product category was pretty thin two years ago, but now there are several brands to choose from, among them the familiar white dogs of RCA (now owned by Audiovox). At the June CES Summer Line Show, RCA unveiled a bevy of portable digital TVs, several of which also receive the nascent MH (mobile handheld) DTV service.
The DMT336R falls into that category. It has a 3.5″ screen, runs for over 2 hours on a single charge, and does an excellent job pulling in both MH and regular over-the-air ATSC broadcasts.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX
There’s not much to the DMT336R. It’s a little bigger than a digital camera, and features a 4:3 TFT LCD screen. (Why RCA didn’t use a widescreen aspect ratio for the LCD remains a mystery.) It has a power button on the side, just above the 5V power jack for recharging the internal battery pack, which is supposed to deliver three hours of viewing time. (It comes close!)
On the opposite side of the case are three connectors. The first is a SMB-type jack for an external antenna. (RCA didn’t provide an adapter from this connector for the review.) There’s also the usual composite video output connection with stereo audio, connected through a mini AV jack. You can also plug in a pair of headphones through a separate audio output jack.
The upper left of the TV housing hides a telescoping 10″ antenna, which can be rotated in any direction. That’s plenty long enough for UHF TV reception, but a tad short for VHF. Even so, if you have enough signal strength at your location, you’ll haul in high-band VHF DTV stations (channels 7-13) just fine.
For such a small TV, the menu is pretty loaded. ATSC and MH programs are tuned separately; you have to access different menus to scan for and select channels from each service. The main reason for that is the ATSC over-the-air standard uses MPEG2 digital video, while the MH service uses MPEG4.
Even though the LCD screen is 4:3, you can select a 16:9 aspect ratio for HD channels. You’ll see black bars above and below the image (also known as “letterboxing”). But you should be aware that most HDTV programs are composed to favor a 4:3 ‘safe area’ so you’ll still see the important stuff even if you opt to watch in 4:3 mode. There are two other aspect ratio settings that allow a partial zoom into the letterboxed image and a setting that takes a ‘center cut’ of the widescreen image.
When tuning in MH services, it takes a few seconds for an active channel to lock up. In the Philadelphia area, only WCAU (digital 10.1) was broadcasting MH when I tested the DMT336R. The long lock-up is due to the massive amounts of Forward Error Correction (FEC) used in the MH service. It’s what keeps the signal present even when you are watching MH TV in a moving car, bus, train, or bicycle. (Wait – how do you watch TV on a bicycle?) You also can watch MH while walking, or in a sedan chair, or in a kayak, or while skiing. (OK, now I’m just being silly…)
HOW IT TESTED
I’ve tried the DMT336R in a few locations, most of them stationary. In mid-July, I visited John Turner of Turner Engineering at home, w-a-y up in the hills of northern New Jersey. The elevation was about 700 feet and we had a line-of-sight path to New York City.
Not surprisingly, the DMT336R pulled in all of the available UHF stations, along with high-band VHF channels 7, 11, and 13. Reception on each channel was rock-steady using the internal whip antenna, although the position of the antenna was somewhat changed for a few channels. I also identified and pulled in MH broadcasts from WNBC, ION, and Telemunco. All of that error correction introduces lots of latency – it can take 5-6 seconds to lock up an MH broadcast, so don’t expect fast channel changes in this mode. But you will be amazed at how stable an MH signal is once you’re watching it, even if you move the TV around.
During these tests, John took out an older Eviant T7 portable ATSC receiver and we did a side-by side comparison. The DMT336R was clearly more sensitive on weaker ATSC signals, and that’s probably because its adaptive equalizer is at least Gen 6. We also watched a Yankees game on WWOR-9 while enjoying pizza and a bottle of wine, and the battery held out for almost 3 hours. The internal audio isn’t very powerful (900 milliwatts) – it’s loud enough in a quiet room or with headphones, but will be hard to pick up in public spaces or out on your boat. So plan on using a pair of headphones while traveling.
My second round of tests were at home, using my rooftop antenna and the built-in whip. I pulled in all of the Philly ATSC stations, plus a single MH service on WCAU (NBC). My particular location isn’t favorable for indoor DTV reception of any kind, save for megapower DTV station WFMZ in Allentown, PA (channel 46). So a powered antenna is a big help. Still, with WFMZ coming in, I could wander around the house and up and down stairs and still hold the signal 80% of the time. Pretty impressive performance!
Did I mention that the DMT336R also contains an FM radio? Just plug in a set of headphones and tune away – the headphone wires double as the FM antenna.
Portable digital TVs have become so inexpensive that it makes plenty of sense to have a few around the house, especially if you suffer from frequent power outages and severe weather. Some portable DTV manufacturers have referred to these gadgets as “hurricane TVs” for that reason.
You can also catch your local sports team in action with the DMT336R. Want to sit on your boat on a Sunday afternoon and catch an NFL game? Or the Saturday baseball game of the week? Here’s one way to do it. There are also plenty of ‘retro’ TV networks carried as secondary DTV channels these days (like This TV) that are fun to watch when traveling. With over 1700 digital TV stations broadcasting across the country, you’ll find something to watch.
The DMT336R delivers the goods. Yes, it could use a more powerful speaker, and yes, it should have come with a widescreen display. But the DMT336R tunes ATSC and MH channels like a champ and costs only $169 (retail), and it’s a low-cost way to access the new MH broadcast services.
You can find out more about the full line of RCA portable digital TVs at www.getmyelectronics.com.
To the Federal Communications Commission: STOP! Enough, already!
- Published on Tuesday, 26 July 2011 12:09
- Pete Putman
- 0 Comments
I don’t normally get worked up by much that comes of out Washington, DC these days – it’s apparent that politicians have no limit to the levels they can sink to.
But the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing effort to reclaim broadcast TV spectrum in an attempt to ‘solve’ a so-called ‘wireless broadband crisis’ has reached absurd levels. And it is time to call them out on it.
Let me first set the table by stating that, a long, long time ago in a country far, far away, the FCC was actually a respected organization that had some actual engineering expertise. The FCC was created in 1934 to replace the Federal Radio Commission. As part of the 1934 Act that birthed the FCC, it was charged with “..regulating the airwaves in the public interest.” Not in the interests of big corporations like Verizon, AT&T, Qualcomm, or Google. In OUR interests.
The interpretation back then was that the radio spectrum (television hadn’t made its debut yet) belonged to the citizens of the United States. And the FCC would regulate how it was used to the benefit of all.
As new communication modes came into existence, the FCC was there to test-drive them and ultimately approve them for everyday use. FM broadcasting, television, Doppler radar, satellites, cellular phones – all became an integral part of our lives after thorough vetting by the FCC’s engineering staff, many of whom (like me) also held amateur radio licenses and could ‘walk the talk’ then it came to the latest technical terminology.
The FCC also regulated ‘common carriers,’ i.e. telephone companies. They approved tariffs and made sure rural areas had access to service. When television took off in the 1950s, the FCC had the foresight to add more channels in the UHF spectrum, and when TV manufacturers were reluctant to add tuners to their TV sets to enable viewing of those channels, the FCC simply made them do it with the All Channel Receiver Act of 1962. Otherwise, the nascent UHF television broadcast service would have died a premature death.
I got my first amateur radio license in 1970 after playing around with pirate AM and FM stations in high school. Back then, you didn’t mess with the FCC, and the appearance of one of their dreaded unmarked gray vans in your neighborhood meant they were on to your illegal radio station – so you pulled the plug, and fast.
In short, the FCC was the perfect umpire for our nation’s spectrum. They knew the technology inside and out, they tried to balance the needs of big corporations with the little guys, and they made sure everyone responsible for a single radio emission knew what the hell they were doing, and were held accountable for it.
Today? The FCC is a joke. I never thought I’d say that, but they have become a laughing stock. They are purely a political organization that is rapidly losing its best engineering talent, and exists merely to identify more spectrum that can be auctioned off to private interests so that Congress can continue to fill its insatiable appetite for money. (It turns out, we do have the best politicians money can buy, as Mark Twain once pointed out.)
Need proof of how low the FCC has sunk? How about the two rounds of ‘white space devices’ testing that the Office of Engineering Technology undertook a few years ago? (White space devices are low-power gadgets for wireless connectivity of media players, TVs, and other goodies in the home, and are intended to work in the UHF TV band.)
All of the devices failed both rounds of tests. Many did not detect strong active digital TV broadcasts on the same frequency! Some took an eternity to scan for active channels.
In short, these devices clearly weren’t ready for prime time. The old FCC would have sent their manufacturers packing in a hurry.
But the ‘new’ FCC? Why, they approved the concept,saying in effect, “Even though none of these gadgets ever worked correctly, you all seem to be nice people and pretty smart, so we’ll assume you can fix the problems.” This, after virtually every manufacturer of wireless microphones, lobbyists for theme parks, Broadway show producers, TV networks, the NAB, church groups, and professional AV associations lined up against white space devices.
So now, just two years after the completion of a difficult transition from analog to digital television – one that has brought us better picture quality (well, in most cases) and free HDTV to communities all over the country, and one that gave up channels 52 through 69 to public safety agencies and private interests, like Qualcomm’s failed FLO service – the FCC wants to take away another 120 MHz (20 channels) of UHF TV spectrum for its manufactured wireless broadband crisis.
To do that, over 600 TV stations currently operating in the UHF TV band will have to relocate. Unlike the analog to digital TV transition, there will be no opportunity to ‘simulcast’ on a new channel while winding down operations on the channel to be given up. These stations will simply have to shut down, install new transmitters and antennas, run coverage tests, and only then light up again.
In a classic case of Orwellian language, the FCC is saying that broadcasters will be invited to participate in a ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and decide if they want to give up their UHF channel in return for financial considerations. (Look how far we’ve come from the Federal Communications Act of 1934: The FCC is now offering bribes to get broadcasters to move, or shut down!)
Anyone who has ever dealt with the government knows that the term ‘voluntary’ is meaningless. If the FCC doesn’t get enough broadcasters to move, then they’ll simply change the rules to get those channels one way or another. It’s a sham.
How will this affect free, over-the-air TV viewers? Well, if you live in Syracuse NY, ALL of your digital TV channels are UHF. Ditto for all but channel 7 in Boston and San Francisco , Huntsville AL, most channels in Denver, Portland ME, most channels in New Orleans, all but one channel in Salt Lake City – well, you get the idea.
The question no one is asking is this: Why not look somewhere else for new broadband spectrum? What about the old analog cellular phone band around 800 MHz? What about the hundreds of MHz the government has allocated to itself on a primary basis for whatever purpose?
You see, the UHF television band used to go all the way to channel 83. But it’s been whittled down several times since the 1950s, and in fact broadcasters have already given back 192 MHz of spectrum for other services in the past 40 years. In my eyes, they’ve done their part already, several times over.
The UHF TV band is better suited for digital TV for a number of reasons. It penetrates into buildings better than high-band VHF channels 7 to 13 (forget trying that with low-band VHF channels 2 through 6). It is easier to design compact, high-gain antennas for UHF digital TV reception. And antennas for the new portable MH digital TV receivers are quite small – only 5 inches is needed for a quarter-wave antenna @ 600 MHz, right around channel 35.
Did you know that ALL TV broadcasting moved to UHF channels in Great Britain in the 1970s after the move to color TV? UHF TV channels were deemed to be much more suitable for the regional broadcasting services. Made plenty of sense then, and makes plenty of sense now.
But there’s no use explaining any of this to the FCC, particularly its chairman, Julius Genachowski. To me, he is the consummate political animal and bureaucrat. He is bound and determined to go after TV broadcasters once again and chop off another limb to satisfy his friends at CTIA and the big telecoms. And you will suffer for it.
One of the few really good deals left to recession-weary Americans these days – who are being nickel-and-dimed to death with monthly service fees for cable, satellite, broadband, and mobile phones – is free, over-the-air digital TV and HDTV. Many of you who have ‘cut the cord’ or are contemplating doing so, relying on a mix of OTA TV programs and Internet video, are going to get screwed if this so-called ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and re-allocation goes through.
Apparently the FCC doesn’t care about saving Americans money, or supporting a diverse, 1700 station-strong free digital TV ecosystem that provides local news, weather, entertainment, sports – again, much of this in HDTV – without costing a dime. Nope, we desperately need more channels to fix our wireless broadband crisis!
Did you know that, in a candid moment last year, the head of Verizon said they weren’t using all of their channel capacity for wireless mobile phone and data service?
Did you know that the UHF TV spectrum is not the best choice for a wireless broadband service? (No, let’s instead move UPWARDS in frequency a few hundred megahertz.)
So, what are you going to to about it? Do you live in a TV market with mostly or all UHF channels? Do you enjoy watching free HDTV programs? Do you realize the disruption this FCC action will cause?
Then get on the phone, or email or write to your congressional representatives in the House and Senate and tell them to put a short leash on the FCC. Tell them to have a full spectrum inventory conducted and made available for public inspection.
Ask them why they would allow the FCC to take away one of the few good deals left to Americans during this time of economic stress, a TV service that more than 15% of the population relies on exclusively (over 30% among Hispanic households).
Ask them why the telecommunications industry gets what it wants, but the average John and Jane Doe – who were the supposed beneficiaries of the Communications Act of 1934 – are usually left holding the bag.
And tell the FCC this: STOP! Enough, already!