Category: The Front Line

More updates on Comcast / ESPN 3D

In my previous post this week, I mentioned that it would be necessary for Comcast customers to upgrade to MPEG4-compatible set-top boxes in order to watch the World Cup 3D coverage. This belief was reinforced by the list of ‘compatible’ set-tops found on the Comcast 3D FAQs Web page, which you can read here. All of these boxes are capable of decoding MPEG4-compressed video, as are the TiVo HD and Premiere XL-series converter boxes.

Subsequent to that post, I received an email from Comcast’s advanced cable labs in Colorado that the ESPN 3D stream was being encoded at about 18 Mb/s with MPEG2 compression, and that it was using the side-by-side frame compatible 3D format, originating as a 1920x1080i signal. (ESPN opted for this format to avoid image degradation that would have resulted from multiple steps of transcoding to get from 1080i/25 to 720p/60.)

I updated my last post to reflect that fact. Now, a conflicting message is coming from another source at Comcast, and you can find the original story at the Cable360.net Web site.

To quote from the story, “…Whether a customer’s provider is cable, telco or satellite, viewers must own a 3D TV and glasses, but Comcast customers have an additional hurdle to jump: They also must have an MPEG-4 set-top box…‘If a customer calls us and says they have a 3D TV and want to watch the World Cup, we’ll provide them with an MPEG-4 set-top,’ said Mark Francisco, a Comcast Fellow, yesterday at a meeting of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the SCTE in Denver.”

Francisco went on to say that ESPN is available in both MPEG2 and MPEG4 formats, but that Comcast is planning this August to  ‘…switch the firmware that allows MPEG-4 to work. Those (MPEG-4) boxes are always associated with HD households. The vast majority are DVRs.’

It’s understandable to have some confusion around the introduction of a new technology or process. But it would be helpful if a clear and thorough explanation had gotten out earlier about the 3D set-top box compatibility issue. As it was, what ‘buzz’ was being heard implied that only MPEG4-equipped set-tops would work with the ESPN 3D broadcasts (not true) but that newer models of set-tops would be needed (true) and that in fact Comcast IS planning to move to MPEG4 encoding for channels like this in the near future (also true).

If anything, this should be instructive to those readers and seminar attendees who’ve asked me if 3D could be broadcast by terrestrial digital TV stations. Yes, it can, using either the 1080i side-by-side or 720p top+bottom formats. But your current TV won’t know what to do with either of these signals.

Hear that, set-top manufacturers? I think there’s a BIG market for outboard 3D converter boxes to work with older HDMI-equipped HDTV sets. Such a box would recognize and sequence either of the frame-compatible 3D formats into 720p/60 or 1080i/30 frames (as is done now), accepting cable (QAM) and terrestrial (VSB) modulation signals with a loop-through RF connection. A pair or two of 3D active shutter glasses could be included in the package, synchronized by a built-in infrared emitter in the converter box.Sell the whole thing for $299 at best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, etc.

I’m not a fan of backwards compatibility in general, but there’s something to be said for it in the case of 3D.

3D TVs: Not Selling like Hotcakes?

Thinking about buying a 3D TV? You might be wise to sit on your hands for a while longer, because you’ll save a few hundred dollars and get more equipment at the checkout line to show for your patience.

Sunday’s Best Buy insert showed a Panasonic 3D TV package that includes the TC-P50VT20 3D plasma TV (comes with one pair of glasses, PLUS an extra two pairs of active shutter glasses, PLUS Geek Squad delivery and setup, all for $2249.96. That supposedly reflects a $700 savings over full list price. (The extra two pairs of glasses are valued at $300).

A few months ago, Panasonic announced a 3D bundle of the TC-P50VT20, one pair of glasses, and their BDT-300 3D Blu-ray player ($399.00) for $2,899, exclusively at Best Buy. That package likely ran out of gas quickly because there are only a handful of 3D Blu-ray discs available to watch right now.

So Best Buy’s new deal shifts focus to ESPN’s 3D coverage of the World Cup soccer matches, which started on June 11. All fine and dandy, but the ‘catch’ is that some cable TV customers will have to upgrade to newer Samsung, Pace, Motorola, and Cisco set-top boxes to receive the ESPN 3D channel – it can’t be done on older set-tops. (And good luck finding out exactly where and if ESPN 3D pops up in your service area!) UPDATE: Comcast is carrying the ESPN 3D signal in the 1080i side-by-side format, encoded as MPEG2 @ 18 Mb/s.

Samsung and Best Buy may have put together an even better deal. For $2769, you can get a UN55C7000 55-inch 240Hz LCD TV (LED backlit, of course) PLUS a BD-C6900 Blu-ray player, PLUS a 3D starter kit (two pairs of AS glasses and a copy of Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D), PLUS the Geek Squad delivery and setup as before. Don’t need a 55-inch screen? Substitute a UN40C7000 40-inch LCD 3D TV, and the price drops to $1799.

The 3D ‘kit’ is all yours for about $2800 bucks.

‘New kid on the block’ HH Gregg (at least, new in eastern Pennsylvania) has the same deal on the 55-inch set, or you can go with a 46-inch model for $2139. (They don’t mention anything about installation and setup, though.) Sixth Avenue Electronics also has the 55-inch and 46-inch packages, and will do free delivery and installation on both.

The Sears Sunday flier states that you can get the BD-C6900 BD player and the 3D starter kit free with the purchase of any Samsung 3D TV, which might be the best deal of all. They’ve priced the 46-inch LN46C750 3D TV (CCFL backlight) at $1529, while Samsung’s PN-50C7000 3D plasma TV is tagged at $1799.

Imagine that. We’re barely three months from all those big 3D product launches in New York, and prices have already started dropping like a stone. To make matters even more interesting, XpanD announced a few months ago at the NAB show that they plan to introduce universal ‘learning’ active shutter glasses to the marketplace later this year, which will directly impact the sales of proprietary AS glasses.

These bundled prices make you wonder about the real value of the glasses and Blu-ray players. In a business where margins are very tight, accessories such as glasses, cables, and even installation services are very important to the bottom line. Both the Panasonic and Samsung BD players list for $400, but my guess is that neither is selling very well right now: Hence, Panasonic’s decision to de-emphasize the player and Samsung’s ploy to throw theirs in as an extra to drive TV sales.

What will be telling is how much this year’s World Cup 3D coverage drives TV sales. You may recall that the World Cup did little or nothing to stimulate sales of HDTVs four years ago because Asian TV manufacturers overlooked an obvious fact: World Cup fanatics in Europe prefer to watch matches in pubs and taverns with their pals – not at home.

While ESPN is to be commended for making a substantial effort and investment to produce 3D coverage, it’s unfortunate that one of the least-appealing sports to Americans (historically speaking) is the focus of this coverage and not something like baseball, or basketball (NBA Finals), or even tennis.

What happens after July 11, when the Cup tournament concludes? How much 3D coverage will be available to drive TV sales throughout the summer?

Apparently not very much, based on the announcements made to date. And that means we’re likely to see even bigger discounts on 3D TV packages by September.

(By the way, none of the package deals I mentioned includes an HDMI cable. Hey, retailers have to make a buck someplace!)

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The DTV Transition: One Year Later

Many HDTVexpert.com readers know I started this Web site back in 2004 as a way to provide useful information on HDTV – how to receive it, how to watch it, and how to get the most out of it.

As it turned out, the most popular articles were (and continue to be) “how to receive digital TV” tutorials. More specifically; how to select and use antennas for over-the-air DTV reception.

Over this past Memorial Day weekend, I had a chance to visit the site of one of my more interesting DTV reception challenges. The house, located high in a steep valley in southern Vermont, is completely blocked-in by a ring of hills and sits 50+ miles from the Albany, NY TV transmitters atop Helderberg Mountain. (Well, most of ‘em are up there.)

The occasion was to install a new flat screen TV and tap my ground-level UHF/VHF antenna system one more time to provide free HDTV to that screen. (The other two taps drive Zenith converter boxes.)

Sure enough, after a few hours of stringing cable and drilling holes, my brother and his wife were able to watch the French Open in HD via NBC affiliate WNYT and the Indianapolis 500 in HD from ABC affiliate WTEN. I also tossed in an upscaling DVD player so that they could enjoy their sizable collection of DVDs in widescreen ‘near’ 1080p quality.

That RF system is done – there’s nothing I can do to improve it, other than periodic maintenance and repairs. And other DTV antenna systems I’ve installed in upstate New York, on a Canadian island, in Maine, at the Jersey shore, and on the roofs of a few locals are perking along happily, with their owners enjoying one of the few great deals left in this world…free television, and in high-definition, too.

It’s a work of art, and a thing of beauty.

My own system is doing a bang-up job hauling in DTV signals from New York City (65 miles), Scranton (70 miles), Philadelphia (22 miles) and Allentown (25 miles). If I get tired of all the ‘hometown cheering’ for the Phillies and Flyers on local DTV stations, I can always switch back to New York DTVs WCBS, WNBC, WABC, and WWOR and get the scoop on the Yankees, Giants, and Knicks. (And if WMCN-DT wasn’t spewing out their inane infomercials on channel 44, I could watch WTXF as well!)

The future of over-the-air DTV isn’t very clear at the moment. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has called for re-allocating much of the UHF TV spectrum, to be used instead for wireless broadband to solve an Internet ‘connectivity crisis.’ (Verizon chairman Ivan Seidenberg has gone on record as saying that this ‘crisis’ is largely non-existent, and that Verizon isn’t even using all of the recycled TV spectrum it bought for such an application.)

Even so, we might as well enjoy OTA DTV while it lasts, which I hope will be a long time. So that brings me to the point of this essay, which is to ask readers this: How is the DTV transition working out for you? Are you connected? Everything running hunky-dory?

Or, are you still having problems with antennas, or older set-top boxes? Still trying to pull in DTV signals in a tough location? Got noise or co-channel interference issues?

Tell me about them. I’d like to hear your stories, and will publish as many as I can.Maybe I can even solve a reception problem for you, if I get lucky.

Drop me an email at pete@hdtvexpert.com with particulars (and photos as well, if you have them). I’d like to get a sense of how many readers are still watching free over-the-air DTV. And how many have opted to drop cable, or cut back on it in favor of broadband video services like Netflix or Hulu.

It’s a very different world we’re living in than ten years ago. Back then, we got excited when a temporary antenna, braced out on our decks or stuck in a low-hanging tree, intermittently pulled in HD broadcasts of Monday Night Football. Remember how revved up you felt back then when the signal finally locked up?

Somehow, Peter Griffin and Saturday Night Live streaming to my laptop doesn’t hold quite the same thrill…

3D: All revved up, but nowhere to go!

How much fun would it be to buy a new sports car if there wasn’t any gas available to power it, or roads to drive it on?

That’s exactly the situation that today’s consumers are facing with 3D TVs: There just isn’t enough content to watch on them. And it’s even more of a problem with 3D movies, as manufacturers have inked several deals giving them exclusive rights to bundle specific 3D movie releases with their 3D TVs and Blu-ray players.

Remember when HDTV first got off the ground, back in 1998? There wasn’t a whole lot of HD content to watch, aside from a few prime time shows on CBS and the occasional movie on ABC.

Consequently, retail demand for HDTVs didn’t really take off until HD programming picked up with movies on HBO, an expanded slate of shows and sports on major TV networks, and the introduction of HD program services by Dish Network. The 2000 Super Bowl, the first to be broadcast in HD, helped generate more interest in HDTV sets.

Even so, it took a few more years before the ball really got rolling and events such as the 2004 Olympics, the Stanley Cup, NBA Playoffs, and World Series were all broadcast in HD formats.

While it’s true that 3D programming choices will expand considerably this month as ESPN launches its World Cup 3D coverage and DirecTV begins 24/7 3D broadcasts, the pickings are slim when it comes to 3D movies.

Those exclusive ‘bundling’ deals are part of the reason. Samsung has locked up 3D Blu-ray distribution of the Shrek franchise (four movies in all) for the rest of 2010, and had a recent exclusive deal for 3D BD copies of Monsters vs. Aliens.

Panasonic has a similar deal to ship 3D BD copies of Coraline and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs in 3D with their 3D TVs, and apparently will have first dibs on Avatar when it’s released in 3D this fall, according to the Web site www.hollywoodinhighdef.com.

What’s more, Sony is apparently negotiating a deal with Disney to have exclusive rights to the 3D BD release of Alice in Wonderland this fall, bundling it with Sony 3D Bravia TVs and BD players. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is supposed to be the first ‘open’ 3D BD release later this month, but even it will be part of a Sony 3D TV bundle (no surprise there, Cloudy was released by Sony Pictures!).

They jury’s still out on whether 3D in the home will be a success. But limiting the pipeline of 3D movies to a trickle at this critical juncture simply isn’t good business. If TV manufacturers really wanted to drive sales, they should pick up the costs of 3D BD mastering for popular movies and let distributors flood the market with these movies.

Frankly, I’m surprised the Blu-ray Marketing Association and Digital Entertainment Group aren’t lobbying more vigorously for this approach. The Blu-ray format hasn’t exactly been an overwhelming success, and 3D is a way for it to ‘niche’ its way forward as the replacement for red laser DVDs. (Incorporating DVRs and BD-R capacity into BD players is another, equally important way to drive adoption of the BD format.)

The DVD format wasn’t hamstrung like this, when it launched in 1997. Players were expensive at the time, but within months, consumers had plenty of DVD movies to choose from at retail, and it didn’t take long for rental stores to start offering them, either.

Reverting back to my analogy: For now, consumers can enjoy their shiny new sports car while it sits in the garage, or zips around the neighborhood. But until those fast roads get built and there is an ample supply of fuel, consumers will continue to drive around in their older sedans and SUVs.

Supply drives demand these days in the HDTV business. Come on, Hollywood – when will the floodgates open on 3D Blu-ray movies?

Aside to Netflix: What’s YOUR timetable for 3D movie streaming? Hmmm?

MLB All-Star Game carried in 3D? (And ESPN World Cup coverage in 1080i?)

At yesterday’s 3DTV 2010 event in New York City, panelist Steven Roberts, New Media and Business Development Senior VP for DirecTV, mentioned that his company was testing the possibility of covering this year’s major league baseball All-Star Game in 3D. The game will take place at Anaheim Stadium on July 13.

This statement gives credence to rumors that Panasonic will soon announce sponsorship of a 3D telecast of a major summer sports event, given their existing partnership with DirecTV. The 3D format would likely be 1080i/30.

Oddly, there has been no news or even a hint of 3D program and sponsorship plans from Sharp, the ‘official’ TV sponsor or baseball.

In other 3D news, Ted Szypulski, senior director of technology research and standards, said at yesterday’s SMPTE-DC Technology Conference that ESPN may have to carry its 3D World Cup coverage in the 1080i format, and not the network’s standard 720p format. That’s because the production will originate in South Africa using the 1080i/25 European standard, and multiple format conversions to get to 720p would likely degrade picture quality and resolution.

1080i 3D programs are typically delivered to your TV using a side-by-side frame-compatible structure to minimize problems with interlaced scanning errors, whereas 720p 3D content would be formatted using a top+bottom arrangement to preserve as much horizontal resolution as possible.