Category: Archives

Cutting the Cord

There’s more than one way to watch TV these days, and cable TV’s days of being ‘king of the hill’ may be drawing to a close.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been hearing (and reading) about folks who have decided to give up their cable TV channel package subscriptions because of the cost…and because they have audited their TV viewing habits and realized they are paying for a lot of channels they never watch.

‘Cord-cutters’ have opted to get their TV fixes in different ways. One is to supplement broadband video with free, over-the-air digital TV. Another is to stream movies and video from Netflix, or to purchase digital downloads to a DVR.

These programs are then watched on everything from laptops to desktop computers, conventional TVs connected to a computer, TVs connected to TiVo DVRs, or simply NeTVs streaming in real time – sometimes with a computer connected for Web sites like Hulu.

How about you? If you are contemplating ‘cutting the cord’ or have already done it, I’d like to hear about your experiences, both positive and negative. I’ll compile these comments and anecdotes into a future article.

Write me at pete@hdtvexpert.com with your stories. Feel free to send along a few photos, too!

The New (TV) World Order

Could Amazon.com and YouTube become more powerful than Disney, Fox, and Warner Brothers? Will TV manufacturers partner with studios to release movies directly to selected models of TVs? Is the traditional model of cable TV channel tiers finally on life support?

It’s all possible, thanks to the explosive growth of Internet-connected Tvs (NeTVs). While the experts are debating the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of 3D in the home, I have yet to hear one dissenting voice about NeTVs. People seem to love the idea that they can surf Web videos just like TV channels. And Netflix’ video streaming service also appears to be catching on in popularity.

It’s easy to see why TV manufacturers are jumping on this bandwagon. The interfaces add little manufacturing costs – a good thing in this age of downward pricing pressure and low margins on TV sales – and there are a log  list of partner content providers ready to link into your living room.

While most video streaming is limited to SD resolution, HD programs can be downloaded with some latency. In tests I’ve conducted using Amazon’s Unbox Web site, it took about 45 minutes to an hour to download 50-minute episodes of TV shows mastered in the 1920×1080 format, using MPEG4 AVC compression. If you’re not in a hurry, that’s a small price to pay to watch HDTV programs and movie. And the picture quality of these HD downloads, as seen on on my 42-inch Panasonic plasma, is close to what I’ve experienced with Blu-ray discs.

LG’s BD950 downloads HD content from VUDU to an internal 250GB hard drive.

OK, let’s assume that demand for streaming digital downloads continue to grow rapidly. According to Nielsen Online, 137.4 million Americans watched Web video in December of 2009, an increase of 10.3 percent over December 2008. 10.7 billion videos were streamed during the month, representing an increase of 11.8 percent versus the same time period a year earlier. The majority of those were from YouTube (no surprise there), with Hulu taking up the #2 spot.

Thanks to the Internet, it’s now possible for an independent production company to shoot, edit, and post a movie online, and reach several million viewers in short order. What’s to stop them from working out a distribution deal with Amazon, and let customers buy downloads (SD or HD) from the Amazon servers?

Throw in the TV shows and movies that Amazon already provides as downloads, and you can see where I’m going with this.  Control the server farms, and you control the marketplace. With DVD sales slowly but steadily declining about 3% to 5% a year for the past five years, the digital download marketplace takes on greater importance. And that puts Netflix and Amazon in the driver’s seat. (Possibly Blockbuster, Best Bu, and Wal-Mart as well.)

The Digital Entertainment Group insists that the Blu-ray format will carry the day, and that we’ll see a turnaround in disc sales about 2010 as we climb out of this recession. Trouble is, two years is an eternity in the world of consumer electronics. What will the market penetration figures look like then for digital downloads and streaming? I’ll bet DVD sales (red laser and Blu-ray) will be in even steeper decline as viewers eschew trips to the video store and even to the mailbox in favor of a few clicks on their remotes. So what does that do to the bottom line at major studios?

NeTVs will also create headaches for cable MSOs. There’s plenty of statistical evidence that cable subscriptions are plateauing and in many cases, declining. Where are those viewers going? Why, to the Internet, of course. These viewers value their broadband connections more than cable channel packages, of which most channels are unwatched. In contrast, NeTVs allow the holy grail of connected TV viewing – a la carte channel packages.

Combine broadband through a NeTV, Amazon, Netflix, and maybe even an outdoor or indoor antenna for free HDTV broadcasts, and you can see there’s trouble in River City for the traditional media distribution companies. Those companies may not admit it, but they’re scrambling to figure out ways to get on this bandwagon and replace that evaporating revenue from DVD sales. Look for TV manufacturers to form exclusive content partnerships with major studios and media companies (a strategy that Sony is already implementing on its 2010 models). And I’m not talking just about widgets!

Content partnerships and controlled content distribution has been the magic formula for Apple’s iPod, iPhone, and the new iPad tablet. There’s no reason those strategies won’t also work for TV manufacturers…

Welcome to the 21st Century

OK, so I’m a little late – by ten years.

But better late than never, I always say. And with that, I want to welcome you to HDTVexpert.com 2.0 – a new, updated, and slimmed-down version of the original site, launched way back in November of 2004.

This new look has been in the works for several months. And it’s very much a work in progress. But it will allow me to provide more frequent updates, news stories, and analysis of trends and trade shows – something that was not as easy to do with the previous version of HDTVexpert.com.

You’ll find the same insightful and opinionated coverage as before, in the “Front Line” blog. I’ll also feature selected reviews of significant and groundbreaking products – no more “me, too!” reviews of products you can just as easily find elsewhere on the Internet.

The popular “Catch Pete At” and “HDTV Tech Talk” sections have also been retained. Look for useful tutorials on a wide range of subjects near and dear to the world of HDTV, such as IPTV, broadband television, digital video downloads, storage media, and alternative delivery methods.

The analog TV shutdown is now history. As a result, I won’t be posting as many stories about antennas and DTV reception, although both are still very important topics. I will keep reviews of appropriate DTV reception products posted as long as there is still interest in them.

Because of time and space limitations, the new layout won’t have a Letters section for now. However, feel free to send any questions or comments you may have to me at pete@hdtvexpert.com. I’ll compile them from time to time in my Front Line section.

If you are looking for an archived article and review from the past couple of years, I’ll be glad to send it to you as a PDF file – just ask.

I’d also like to take a moment to remember Chris Campbell of CC Graphic Design, who was taken from us suddenly this past December at age 50. Chris developed my first Web site back in 2000 and was responsible for the clean look and easy reads of HDTVexpert.com. We worked together for nearly 20 years and he will be greatly missed.

In closing, I want to say thanks for your continue support. My advertisers appreciate your interest, too! Please continue to patronize their products and Web sites, for it’s their support that keeps HDTVexpert.com going!

Pete Putman
Editor/Publisher

InfoComm 2010 Seminar: Digital Video 201

Session IW05

Thursday, June 10

8:00 – 10:00 AM

Room N259

Las Vegas Convention Center

Las Vegas, NV

Classic Pete: Up On The Roof…Once Again

Three DTV antenna installations in two weeks — just another “day at the office?” Not for two of the homeowners involved, who are enjoying more free HDTV channels now.

It’s been a while since I got up on a roof with my tools and wired up an antenna system. With a whirlwind Panasonic dealer tour taking up most of my time in October (along with thousands of miles logged on United and US Airways), it was a nice break to put aside the computer and Powerpoint presentations, strap on my tool belt, and work with my hands.

As it turned out, I upgraded two systems and built a brand-new system for the third location. Off-the-shelf antennas and preamplifiers were used in each case, along with existing DTV sets and set-top boxes. Propagation tests and TVFool.com plots were used along with a Sencore SA1501 portable spectrum analyzer to align the antennas and verify reception at each location.

FIRST STOP: WALL TOWNSHIP, N.J.

I had previously set up this location a few years back to receive as many of the New York City DTV stations as I could. Back then, all of them were transmitting on UHF channels, but the combined antenna owned by CBS and mounted on the NW side of the Empire State Building still had pattern problems.

In particular, WNBC-28 was getting out horribly with a pattern that looked more like broken glass than a semi-circular shape. The pattern was so bad that I couldn’t even receive the station reliably when sitting on top of the Ramapo Mountains in NW New Jersey, looking directly at Empire with a Channel Master 4308 UHF yagi.

Following the analog shutdown on June 12, three NYC stations gave up their UHF assignments and moved back to highband VHF channels. WABC vacated channel 45 and returned to VHF-7, while WPIX turned UHF-33 over to WCBS and went back to VHF-11. WNET completed the trifecta by bailing out of UHF 61 (now out of the DTV core) and resuming transmissions on VHF-13.

Why didn’t WWOR move back to channel 9? Asleep at the switch, I’m afraid. WBPH in Allentown, who had been assigned UHF-60 originally, moved their operation to channel 9 and decided to stay put when the final channel elections were conducted. So, WWOR was forced to stay on UHF-38, carrying their own programs on minor channel #1 and duplicating WNYW’s telecast on minor channel #2. (The story behind that arrangement, along with WNYW simulcasting WWOR on 5-2, is best left for a future column.)


Figure 1. The “old” antenna setup (since June 2009) for VHF/UHF reception in Wall, NJ.

The original antenna setup (Figure 1) was a modified CM4308 driving a CM 7775 Titan 2 mast-mount preamp, fastened to a chimney atop a one-story house barricaded immediately to the north by tall trees. The location, just west of NJ Route 18, sits about 39 miles from Empire “as the photon flies” and was a good candidate for strong highband VHF reception, too.

The problem: The owner had originally replaced the CM4308 with a Channel Master 2016 and CM 7777 dual-band preamp at my suggestion to pull in 7, 11, and 13, but no luck. Channels 28 and 33 were solid, while WNYW-44 was in and out. Not good if you are a New York Giants fan and want to watch NFC games on Fox! Figure 2a shows the weak VHF signals on those channels using the original antenna setup, while figure 2b reveals that WNYW, while presenting with a clean waveform, has just barely enough carrier-to-noise to lock up reliably.

The fix: I ordered an Antennacraft Y5-7-13 five-element highband VHF yagi ($26.99 plus shipping) to replace the single angled half-wave dipole element on the CM2016, and set the internal combining switch on the CM 7777 preamp to separate VHF and UHF inputs. Out came the original CM4308 and it went atop a newer, taller mast (Figure 3).


Figure 2a. Highband VHF signals were weak through the CM2016.


Figure 2b. WNYW-44 was intermittent.

After careful aiming with the SA1501, it became apparent that, while the optimum heading for the VHF yagi was true to the TVFool prediction, the optimum heading for the CM4308 was about 5 degrees farther east to clean up the pattern from WNYW-44.

Figure 4a shows the improvements to channels 7, 11, and 13, adding NJ Public TV station WNJB-8 to the mix, while figure 4b shows UHF channels 25 through 40 all booming in. A stronger, dropout-free 8VSB waveform from WNYW-44 is seen in Figure 4c. (That’s WNJT-43 off the side of the antenna.)

Now, the homeowner has reliable reception of all major network channels, even in high winds (which we experienced that day) using a DirecTV set-top receiver with ATSC tuner. That means was able to see the NY Giants get their butts kicked on successive weekends by the Cardinals and Eagles! (Be careful what you wish for…)

Note that, as of this writing, Channel Master has discontinued the CM4308 from its catalog. Not to worry! You can use a CM2016 in its place — just don’t connect the single dipole VHF element, although you should fold it out into its normal position.


Figure 3. The new split-stack UHF/VHF array, showing the offset for UHF reception.


Figure 4a-b-c. Now, channels 7 through 13 are solid (left), while UHF stations are slightly stronger (center) and WNYW-44 has lots more headroom (right).

SECOND STOP: HOME SWEET HOME

Not many people come home from church services at noontime on a sunny, warm day and say, “Gee, I think I’ll go up on the roof and change out my antenna system!” But I’m a bit strange that way. My wife asked me if she should stick around to help out while I was up there, but I assured her I was perfectly capable of falling off a roof by myself with no additional help. (Black humor…)

Turns out, I ordered two of the Antennacraft Y5-7-13s, which (for some strange reason) they insist on shipping FedEx Green with signature required. Apparently, theft of TV antennas from front porches is a problem in some parts of the country?

Last December, I had replaced my old setup with a pair of CM 2016s, stacked and offset on a rotatable mast. The offset was designed so that when the bottom antenna was aimed towards Philadelphia, the top antenna was aimed towards New York City (60+ miles away, over two ranges of hills).

The problem: As things turned out, I rarely need to move the Philly antenna, but I did rotate the top CM2016 frequently to pick up stations as far away as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (70+ miles, also over two ridges). Alas, after 6/12/09, I lost WABC, WPIX, and WNET completely as they moved back to the VHF band. As I discovered at the previous location, the CM2016s weren’t up to the job of pulling in these stations, even though they did snag WBRE-11 and WYOU-13 from Scranton — pretty impressive for a single half-wave dipole!

Figure 5. My lower, fixed CM2016, aimed permanently towards the Roxborough (Philadelphia) antenna farm.

Figure 6. The new UHF/VHF stack, aimed towards New York. Told you it was a beautiful day for antenna work!

The fix: This was a three-art solution. First, I removed the lower CM2016 and fastened it to the rotor support, permanently aimed SSW towards Roxborough, about 22 miles away as seen in figure 5. It feeds the combined input of a CM 7777 preamp, necessary because I split the signal several times to distribute it through the house.

Next, I re-installed another CM4308 atop the mast and Y5-7-13 below it, both feeding another CM 7777 preamp in split-input mode. This array would become my “DX” antenna (figure 6), although I anticipated leaving it aimed towards New York most of the time.

Results were encouraging, although not perfect. Figure 7a shows the RF spectrum from channels 7 through 13 before the upgrade, while figure 7b shows the same channels afterwards. Not a substantial difference to be sure, except that the antenna is now more selective and I gained some C/N headroom on channel 7. WPIX-11 and WNET-13 are largely unchanged, which would imply that I had some enhanced propagation when I took the original measurements back in late June of 2009.

Reception of all three VHF channels continues to be problematic, although each has gotten much stronger. Channels 11 and 13 in Scranton are no doubt causing co-channel interference problems, so I may never get that resolved. As for WABC-7, I don’t think the station is running enough power for highband VHF operation — another 3 or even 6 dB would seem to be in order.

Figures 7a-b. Channels 7 through 13 as received on the old CM2016 (left) and the new Y5-7-13 (right).

Figure 8. There’s lots of RF coming in from New York on the low UHF band!

On UHF, signals just barrel in, as seen in figure 8. WNBC-28, WCBS-33, WWOR-38, and WXTV-40 are all strong, 24/7. Unfortunately, WNYW-44 can’t get through because of co-channel interference from WMCN-44 in south Jersey (no NY Giants NFC games…sigh…), while WPXN-31 just isn’t strong enough to peek through.

Supposedly, an upgrade to the combined VHF antenna atop Empire is in the works for 2010, according to sources in the industry. Maybe that will change things for the better!

LAST STOP: SAUGERTIES, N.Y.

My last trip was up to the foothills of the Catskills on a rainy, foggy early morning. My goal? Install VHF and UHF antennas for reception of Albany and Schenectady DTV stations, allowing the homeowner (my youngest brother) to “cut the cord” and drop expensive cable TV channel packages while retaining broadband service from Time Warner.

The problem: This location, on the side of a hill and about 35 miles from the Helderberg Mountain antenna farms over a 1-edge path, didn’t look to be particularly difficult. (Figure 9) I had run some UHF DTV reception tests at this location a few years back with encouraging results. At the time, most of the Albany DTV stations were on UHF, with a couple plugging away on highband VHF. Post-transition, I’d need to pull in WRGB-6, WXXA-7, WNYT-12, WNYA-13, WTEN-26, WMHT-34, and WCWN-43 at the least.

Figure 9. The Saugerties location had a nice, nearly flat roof to work on.

Figure 10. Here’s the final UHF/VHF stack with the CS600 on the bottom.

The fix: Because the Albany market has a lowband VHF DTV operation (WRGB-6), I ordered Antennacraft’s CS600 dual-band yagi ($34.72 + shipping), the same antenna that is currently sitting about a foot off the ground at the “fringe” SW Vermont location I wrote about this past August.

UHF reception would be taken care of by yet another CM 4308, sitting a few feet above the CS600 on the stack. (Figure 10) A quick test with my spectrum analyzer showed that it didn’t much matter where I mounted the antenna on the roof — I’d have plenty of signal to work with, except from WNYA-13. This channel exhibited low signal levels no matter where I spotted the mast.

(Subsequent email chats with one Albany DTV engineer revealed that the WNYA-13 DTV antenna system does not get out as well as other stations and is side-mounted on the old WRGB analog channel 6 tower — PP)

Each antenna drove the separate inputs of a CM 7777 mast-mounted preamp (gotta love it!), which in turn was scheduled to go into an existing eight-way splitter from the original cable TV distribution system. As it turned out, only four of the taps on the splitter actually led to any TVs or wall-mounted jacks, so I swapped it out for a more reasonable four-way split arrangement.

Figure 11a-b-c. WRGB-6 is super strong (left), while WXXA-7 (center) and WNYT-12 and WNYA-13 (right) are sufficiently powered up.

Figures 12a-b-c. WTEN-26 (left) is another monster signal out of Albany, while WMHT-34 (center) and WCWN-43 (right) are “merely” strong enough!

Figure 11a shows the unbelievably strong signal from WRGB-6, boosted shortly after 6/12 to overcome possible interference from those adjacent FM broadcast stations and also to fill in holes in signal coverage. Figure 11b shows WXXA-7; while figure 11c lets you clearly see the power disadvantage of WNYA-13 (right) compared to WNYT-12 (left).

As for UHF, you can see the strong signal from WTEN-26 in figure 12a (that’s WTBY-27 to its right, many miles SE of my location), with WMHT-34 and WCWN-43 visible in figures 12b and 12c, respectively. WYPX (ION) from Amsterdam just wasn’t strong enough to lock up on either of the Digital Stream DTV converter boxes I installed in the house — too far away.

Oddly enough, WNYA-13 will only come through on two of the three active RF feeds in the house, even though a test of signal levels showed all three to be about the same. Switching converter boxes out didn’t make any difference, so there may be a problem in one of the coaxial lines I’ll have to ring out on a future visit. In the meantime, the system was up and running in time for us to watch Game 3 of the World Series…even if it was downconverted digital TV of an old Philips CRT set.

Tech notes: Antennacraft yagis are designed with square booms and cannot use conventional round boom hardware that is common to Channel Master yagis. You will get a hardware bag with the antenna — don’t lose it! Also, you will need to purchase a balun transformer separately to make your coaxial feed, as Antennacraft doesn’t provide baluns or weatherproof boots with their yagis.

Figure 13. Here’s one way to attach a round balun to a square boom. (Sounds like one of those mental puzzles from my childhood…)

Figure 13 shows a Channel Master balun attached to a Y5-7-13 and secured with tape. It’s a good idea to form the balanced wire connections into drip loops and mount the balun underneath the antenna. Also, add a drip loop to the coax feed before it attaches to and travels down the mast.