Posts Tagged ‘Antenna’

Reading Between The Lines

In a report released yesterday, the Consumer Electronics Association states that 10% of American households are either ‘very likely’ or ‘likely’ to cancel pay TV services this year, while an additional 14% are either ‘somewhat likely’ or ‘somewhat unlikely’ to cut the cord. 76% of those surveyed were in the ‘unlikely’ or ‘very unlikely’ group.

While those numbers should give some pay TV operators a little cause for concern – maybe as an incentive to offer simpler, basic channel packages at lower costs – the CEA report then veered off in another direction.

The report, which you can read here, states that only 8% of all U.S. households rely exclusively on over-the-air (OTA) TV reception, a number that was immediately disputed by the national Association of Broadcasters, according to a story in Multichannel News.

The MCN story quoted CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro as saying, “Contrary to the National Association of Broadcasters’ assertions, antenna sales are falling and cord-cutters are not shifting to over-the-air television but rather to the Internet. The only cord being cut these days is the one to the antenna.”

NAB’s spokesman Dennis Wharton was quick to respond. “CEA has zero credibility when it comes to calculating over-the-air TV viewership. Knowledge Networks has stated that over-the-air exclusive homes are more than 14% and rising. We trust an unbiased research firm over a survey paid for by CEA,” he replied.

Both my own experience and national news stories about cord-cutting have clearly shown that free, over-the-air TV is a key component of the cord-cutting experience. Why? Because it’s doggone difficult to watch sports and prime time TV shows in HDTV over a typical Internet connection, that’s why! And of course, OTA TV is free to viewers. So it is often combined with broadband access as part of the kiss-off to Comcast or Time Warner.

As it turns out, CEA has an obvious bias here. (Wow – this has been a bad week for objective research!) In a press release that came out earlier today, CEA announced that its Innovation Movement and Small Business Council would bring a ‘small business message’ to Capitol Hill.

The message? That small businesses “…run a gauntlet of new laws, new regulations and new costs that can put them out of business. Instead of imposing additional burdens, policymakers should be creating small businesses to invest, expand and create additional jobs.”

So where’s the bias? In the fifth paragraph of the press release, CEA states:

“Online, CEA’s Innovation Movement will be hosting a Virtual Lobby Day for its 114,000-plus members to encourage them to act on one key issue affecting small businesses: incentive spectrum auctions. CEA Innovation Movement members will be called to ask their congressional representatives to authorize the FCC to move forward with “incentive auctions,” which would provide broadcasters the ability to repurpose their frequencies through a spectrum auction in exchange for proceeds from auction revenues. Broadcasters could participate on a voluntary basis and purchasers could redeploy the spectrum for wireless broadband that could generate $33 billion for the U.S. Treasury and would allow endless opportunities for innovation in small business. “

A-HA! Apparently the primary motivation of this Innovation Movement is to pressure congress into selling off more broadcast TV spectrum. How, exactly, does that benefit a so-called ‘small business’ like mine? Seems to me such auctions would be far more useful Verizon and AT&T more than anyone else, and they’re as far removed from ‘small businesses’ as you can get.

According to Shapiro, “Using huge swaths of wireless spectrum to deliver TV to homes no longer makes economic sense. Congress should pass legislation to allow for incentive auctions so free market dynamics can find the best purposes for underused broadcast spectrum, such as wireless broadband.”

OK, connect the dots with me: (1) CEA’s members want more spectrum for broadband and other WiFi gadgets. (2) They think terrestrial broadcasters are vulnerable now. (3) So, CEA commissions a study that shows only while a small number of people are dropping or planning to drop pay TV service, these cord-cutters are NOT moving to over-the-air reception. No, they are instead turning to Internet-delivered video services. (4) Therefore, the country needs more bandwidth for broadband delivery of (among other things) video content, and less bandwidth for broadcast TV programs.

And I thought the recent Digital Entertainment Group survey of 3D TV trends was self-serving!  While I have no issue with the small number of cord-cutters the CEA identified, I simply cannot believe these ‘cutters’ would turn away from free HDTV programming for their new LCD and plasma TVs.

The CEA’s bias is clear now. In the last decade, they fought the digital TV tuner mandate, calling it an undue burden on TV manufacturers. Once the DTV transition got rolling, however, CEA did a flip-flop and showered praise on the FCC’s decision to move to a digital TV future, bringing free HDTV to millions of American homes.

Now, CEA has flipped again and says that free OTA TV is a dinosaur, and should be consigned to the dustbin of history in favor of wireless broadband in the UHF television band (a concept that is still on shaky ground technically).

I’m surprised the folks at CEA haven’t gotten whiplash from constantly reversing their positions. But it’s pretty clear now who’s really behind the curtains, calling the shots for CEA and also putting pressure on the FCC these days.

The question is; how many Americans still care that they can watch free HDTV anymore?

I’ll bet it’s a lot more than 8% of all U.S. households…

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Whether you like the man’s music or not, there can be no argument that it has had a profound impact on countless artists and bands ever since his first album was released 49 years ago.

 

One of my favorite Dylan tunes is the aforementioned “Times,” and it couldn’t be more appropriate in 2011. The world of media distribution is turning on its head, thanks to the Internet and digital technology.

 

Consider these recent stories. At a meeting of the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) last week in Dallas, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski emphatically stated that there is no need for further debate on the topic of spectrum shortages. Quote: “Any objective observer would have to say that the spectrum crunch debate has been put to rest.”

 

Genachowski, of course, has been advocating that TV broadcasters give up yet another chunk of their spectrum that would be re-assigned for wireless broadband services (something TIA members like Verizon and AT&T are salivating over).

 

Obviously Genachowski feels that the importance of free, over-the-air television has greatly diminished, and that ‘broadband for everybody’ should be the modus operandi going forward, using ‘voluntary’ spectrum auctions to free up UHF TV channels for his pet project.

 

Aside from some technical reasons why using UHF TV channels for wireless broadband isn’t a good idea, Genachowski is clearly overlooking other spectrum that could just as easily be put to the same purpose, such as the 800 MHz analog cellular phone band. (Betcha didn’t know those channels were still in use!) Or, how about the hundreds of MHz reserved exclusively for government use? A 120-MHz bite out of that would hardly be noticed.

 

The point, however, is that Genachowski feels the availability of free digital TV (and free HDTV, I should add) isn’t nearly as important as having broadband access to Netflix streaming, or to eBay auctions, or to the Huffington Post, or to ESPN.com.

 

And that is a sea change in the thinking of the FCC from 1934, when it was created from the old Federal Radio Commission to ‘regulate the airwaves in the public interest,’ to 2009 when the digital TV transition was complete, and the FCC had largely devolved into a glorified spectrum auction house.

 

Wireless isn’t the only place where the old order of media distribution is under siege. Two recent reports from the Digital Entertainment Group and SNL Kagan clearly show that America’s love affair with the DVD is over, and that more and more households are embracing a ‘cloud’ model for accessing and watching movies and TV shows.

 

Kagan’s study revealed that wholesale revenue from DVDs (not Blu-ray discs) in 2010 dropped almost 44% from 2009, even though 2010 was a decent year at the box office. This decline in DVD sales has been evident for nearly six years now, and is picking up speed – Kagan calculates that the annual compound negative growth rate for DVD revenue is over 13% in the past five years.

 

Granted, DVD rental income from $1-per-night kiosks was up last year, and video-on-demand (including Netflix streaming) is in a strong growth mode. Even so, overall consumer spending on entertainment declined almost 11% in 2010, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

 

The important thing to note here is that streaming is growing by leaps and bounds. As you’ve probably read elsewhere, Netflix now has more subscribers than Comcast (over 23 million). And Netflix streaming is largely what’s driving sales of connected Blu-ray players, not sales and rentals of Blu-ray discs. There’s that ‘cloud’ thing, again!

 

The problem with Netflix streaming is that the revenue that goes back to Hollywood studios doesn’t even come close to replacing the cash cow that DVDs once represented. And that drop-off in revenue will definitely be a sticking point when each studio’s contracts with Netflix are renegotiated in t near future.

 

On the hardware side of things, we’re seeing an accelerating shift away from traditional notebook computers to touchscreen tablets and eBook readers. A recent news story stated that women, who generally read more books than men, are flocking to Barnes & Nobles’ color Nook reader and are also reading more magazines than ever before on said reader.

 

That fact, plus the embedded but largely hidden Android OS that has the potential to turn the Nook into a full-blown media tablet, may be the reason why John Malone’s Liberty Media is making a play for Barnes & Noble. Last Thursday, Malone’s company announced a $1B offer for 70% of the company. The bid price is about $17 per share, which represents a 20% premium over the current stock price.

 

Why would Malone, who made his fortune in the cable TV business, want to own the largest bookseller in the United States? Because he can deliver all sorts of content – print or otherwise – directly to Nooks through a ‘cloud’ structure. (And he might need some of those UHF TV frequencies to do it!)

 

There you have it. TV and movies everywhere, anytime (just not on optical discs). A media center in your coat pocket. Cloud servers set up by everyone from Amazon to Apple. Wireless broadband access to everything, even if it means you have to pay Verizon and AT&T to watch TV programs, over the air, with an antenna. And the increasing likeliness that you will have to pay to watch HDTV content, wherever it comes from.

 

The times, they are indeed a-changin’…

James Cameron Says Half-Resolution 3D Is ‘Good Enough’ for the Home (Updated 4/28/11)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some readers have taken exception with my description of James Cameron’s statements pertaining to the half-resolution side-by-side and top+bottom 3D formats. Cameron did not endorse passive 3D at NAB; his comments below were limited only to these two frame-compatible 3D delivery systems. Accordingly, I have changed the headline to more accurately reflect his statements.

 

At the NAB show a few weeks ago, James Cameron and Vince Pace announced a new company to assist cinematographers and videographers in the production of 3D movies and TV shows by developing, selling, and leasing 3D camera systems.

 

Cameron feels that in the not-too-distant future, all feature film and TV series production could be mastered in 3D with 2D versions extracted from the digital files. The company has already developed a system for simultaneous 3D/2D production at live events, known as Shadow. It was used during the recent CBS broadcast of the Masters golf tournament.

 

While none of this is earth-shattering news, something Cameron said later during the question and answer period bears mentioning. In response to a question about carrying 3D over conventional broadcast channels, Cameron replied by first describing the side-by-side and top+bottom frame-compatible 3D formats, both of which sacrifice resolution.

 

Side-by-side is used exclusively on 1080i 3D broadcasts, resulting in left eye and right eye images that are anamorphically squeezed into the same video frame. For side-by-side 3D, each image winds up with 960×1080 resolution, while top+bottom images are re-sized to 1280×360. The lost pixels must be interpolated when each frame is anamorphically stretched back to its original size, which is why neither 3D system looks particularly sharp when compared to 3D Blu-ray discs.

 

After Cameron correctly identified side-by-side and top+bottom as being the only practical systems right now for broadcast, he then went on to say, “…full HD 3D would require a doubling of bandwidth, but it’s not necessary right now…you only need full HD for each eye for cinema-sized displays. You don’t need it for home displays. That’s my opinion right now.”

 

You can watch Cameron’s response here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI8OmPdSfBw&NR=1

 

That comment opened quite a few eyes, particularly mine. Here is the most influential filmmaker of his time when it comes to advanced technology, saying that full HD isn’t needed in the home, and that half-resolution 3D is adequate for now.

 

Really?

 

What about frame-packed 3D Blu-ray discs? I’m sure the Digital Entertainment Group would like to hear Cameron’s perspective on that one. So would any manufacturer of active-shutter 3D TVs. So would any person who just purchased a 3D TV measuring 46 inches and larger.

 

What about passive 3D TVs, which throw away half the vertical resolution from any 3D content? Why would you want to watch less-than-full HD 3D movies and TV shows on one of these sets and just make the problem worse?

 

I would think that Cameron would be strongly advocating for full HD across the board, particularly since one company (Sisivel) already showed a system at NAB 2011 that would accommodate two full-resolution 1280×720 views in a standard 6 MHz channel using H.264 AVC coding. Here’s a picture of what it looks like:

And that is how you pack two full-resolution 1280x720p 3D images into one standard 6 Mhz broadcast...with the help of a little MPEG4 encoding, of course.

The Sisivel system keeps the left eye frame intact; that is the normal 2D view. The right eye frame is broken up into three smaller tiles that are stitched together in the decoder/receiver. It’s not a new trick and is relatively simple to pull off with today’s powerful software and hardware.

 

Granted, ATSC broadcasters do not use MPEG4 encoding. But that’s not the point: Sisivel tried a different approach and came up with a way to handle 720p 3D content without sacrificing any resolution, something that ought to be of interest to ESPN’s 3D content producers who could deliver this format right now over cable and DBS systems.

 

MPEG2 compression systems have also gotten a lot more efficient, perhaps 100% better than they were a decade ago. While it’s not feasible to put a pair of 1920x1080i full-frame signals into a 6 MHz channel, it can be done now with 720p, based on the demos I saw at NAB.

 

No one should ‘settle’ for lower quality 3D if they are simultaneously trying to get the format to take off. There are plenty of sharp technical people out there that are coming up with creative ways to pack multiple HD programs into standard TV channels without compromising image quality. Stay tuned!

Can You Cut the Cord and Still Find Happiness in TV Land?

The newspapers have been full lately of stories that (a) claim cord-cutting will have no impact on pay TV viewing, or (b) show an increasing number of TV viewers are dumping (or strongly considering dumping) cable TV packages in favor of broadband video, or broadband plus over-the-air digital TV.

On the “it’s no big deal side,” you’ll find ESPN and Frank Magid Associates, while the “cord cutting is a growing trend” camp is represented by Parks and Associates, Time Warner, and SNL Kagan. While both sides acknowledge that the pay TV industry suffered its first-ever net loss of subscribers from April to September of this year, they disagree on the reasons.

ESPN and Magid claim that the total subscriber churn is less than 1%, and may be as low as one-quarter of one percent. They attribute the drop-off to the recession and expiring triple-play special deals. Parks points to the explosion in sales of Internet-connected TVs (NeTVs) and connected Blu-ray players and DVRs. Time Warner, in the meantime, just launched a lower-price basic “popular demand” channel package to hold on to subscribers, and will be followed by Charter Communications shortly.

Time for some clarity! According to a story on paidContent.org, Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin reported the results of a simple request she made of 300 respondents in October: “Please list which TV channels you must have available online in order for you to turn off your pay TV subscription.”

Guess who sat at the top of the list? CBS, named by 35% of respondents. The #2 slot was filled by ABC (right behind at 34%), while Fox was in a tie with NBC at 31%.

The highest-rated pay TV network was (no surprise) ESPN, listed by 27% of respondents. The rest of the top ten was made up of Discovery (19%), History Channel (14%), HBO (11%), Comedy Central (10%), and The Food Network (also 10%).

It’s interesting that the top four networks are also available in many markets for free as over-the-air digital TV broadcasts. That also may explain why some cord-cutters are quick to dump cable TV and get their TV fix with antennas and a broadband connection.  (For what it’s worth, PBS finished in a seven-way tie with The CW, MTV, HGTV, CNN, Lifetime, and Bravo.)

The paidContent article comments that most respondents who voted for at least one over-the-air TV network also listed the rest of them. “Most folks think of the four broadcasters as a monolith,” said Martin. “This may be because consumers actually watch shows on all four broadcast networks, or it could be because they have no idea which network their favorite shows are on.”

For viewers who live near major cities, it’s not unusual to have as many as 30+ minor channels of free, over-the-air programming available. Those viewers are also more likely to have fast broadband, so cutting off cable or satellite TV still leaves them with plenty of program choices…and apparently, their ‘can’t live without’ TV networks as well.

So yes, you can find some happiness in the world of free TV…so long as you are willing to part with a few cable and satellite networks, and have a good broadband connection for Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and other Internet TV channels.

To Readers: How about you? Would you be willing to drop cable or satellite TV, and just live with what you can watch using an antenna and a fast Internet connection? Or maybe you’ve already cut the cord? I’d like to hear your comments one way or the other.

3D over broadcast digital TV: Can it be done right now?

I’ve been asked more than a few times this year if it is at all possible to transmit 3D over digital terrestrial television broadcasting (DTTB), or what we know simply as “free digital TV.” There seems to be a perception that one must have a Pay TV subscription service (cable, DBS, FiOS, or U-Verse) to access 3D programming.

Believe it or not, carrying 3D over terrestrial broadcast stations is mostly a business decision. Yes, major TV networks like CBS, NBC, Fox, and ABC could start broadcasting programs in 3D right now. And your 3D-enabled TV would be able to process the 3D signals correctly so the programs can be watched with active-shutter glasses. (I’m not going to discuss color anaglyph 3D here, which works over any TC channel, but produces the lowest quality of 3D.)

The ‘catch’ is that the 3D content would have to be delivered in a frame-compatible format, such as 720p/60 top + bottom (like ESPN uses), or 1080i/30 side-by-side (like DirecTV uses). Both of these formats were specifically developed to fit in a standard 6 MHz channel space, using a maximum bit rate of about 19.39 Mb/s. And in fact, broadcasts of 3D content from earlier this year were delivered in the MPEG2 format that is standard for over-the-air digital TV.

The top + bottom format used for 720p/60 frame-compatible broadcasts.

The fact that cable companies and satellite broadcasters are now moving to MPEG4 encoding for 3D carriage shouldn’t be discouraging. MPEG4 (more specifically, H.264 AVC) provides for 50% compression efficiency over MPEG2. But broadcasters can still pipe a pretty good 3D signal into your home using MPEG2, which has also gotten a lot more efficient in the nearly 20 years it’s been around.

Remember that both of the frame-compatible 3D formats sacrifice some image resolution to fit within a standard channel width/bit rate constraint, no matter what service you get 3D from. For top+bottom, your TV receives a combination frame with two 1280×360 images, anamorphically squeezed in the vertical plane. For side-by-side, each frame of video provides a pair of 960×1080 images, anamorphically squeezed in the horizontal plane.

Your 3D TV separates the two frames and reverses the anamorphic squeeze with a stretching process, resulting in full left eye/right eye frames – albeit with somewhat lower resolution. But today’s TVs do a pretty good job of interpolating pixels to correct for de-interlacing and judder, so these half-resolution images don’t look nearly as bad as you might think.

The side-by-side 1080i/30 format used for 1080i/30 broadcasts.

So, what’s holding broadcasters back? For one thing, available bits! DTTB is limited to a maximum bit rate of 19.39 Mb/s, and that leaves just enough room for one full HD channel (15 Mb/s maximum bit rate) and perhaps a standard-definition channel (3 MB/s maximum bit rate) to go along with it. So a broadcaster would have to devote the entire HD bit rate to the 3D program. Jamming a second 720p/60 or 1080i/30 3D program alongside the standard 2D broadcast would not be practical, as image quality on both channels would suffer.

Another possibility would be to transmit a 2D signal (left eye) and carry the right eye signal as a separate program. This would be a similar approach to analog FM stereo broadcasts, where the stereo information is transmitted as a subcarrier, or analog color TV, where the color burst is also carried as a subcarrier.

This technique can be accomplished digitally by transmitting a full-bandwidth 2D signal (left eye) and carrying additional metadata (2D + depth information) required to create the stereoscopic effect. That metadata would add something to the payload, and would rely on the some of the image processing inside the TV.

Now, a broadcaster could carry the Super Bowl in full HD as before (720p or 1080i), yet still enable 3D viewing for TVs equipped to handle the 3D signal. But there’s another ‘catch:’ Your TV would have to recognize the metadata ‘package’ and be able to open it up, rebuild the right eye frames, and sequence them accordingly.

Because it’s not likely that a DTTB station would use its entire bandwidth to carry a 3D broadcast of a big event, the 2D + depth format would make the most sense, just as older black and white TVs could still display a color TV program simply by ignoring the chrominance signals. I don’t know of any consumer TVs that are equipped to handle the 2D + depth format, so some sort of outboard adapter would be required to make this work.

The good news is that such a 3D converter box would not have to be expensive. It would incorporate an ATSC tuner (maybe even a pair of tuners!) and would be equipped to process the DTTB 3D signal into top + bottom or side-by-side formats, using a standard HDMI output connection to the TV. Frankly, such a box ought not to cost much more than $100, and could also be sold as a bundle with one or two pairs of universal active shutter glasses. (Motorola showed a prototype 3D converter box at NAB 2010 for older, non-3D TVs.)

What programs would work in 3D? Aside from football, which I do not believe benefits much from 3D based on my recent experiences, I’d say basketball, hockey, auto racing, Olympics individual events, golf, and tennis. Basically any sports event where the camera can get close enough to realistically create a sense of depth.

Who would be likely to try 3D broadcasts? My guess would be ABC and Fox for starters, given how much sports programming these networks already carry and how many stations they own. ABC, of course, is part of Disney, who also owns ESPN. ABC has the NBA, college football, and the Indianapolis 500, while Fox operates an extensive sports division and covers college and pro football, auto racing, and major league baseball.

NBC might also dip their toes in the water with Olympics coverage, Notre Dame football, NASCAR, horse racing, and Sunday Night Football. I’d see CBS as the last network to try this out, simply because they adhere to a strict ‘no multicast’ policy at all of their owned-and-operated (O&O) CBS and CW stations.

So the answer to the question is “Yes, free TV stations can broadcast 3D programming, and they can broadcast it now.” The catch is, do they want to, and which delivery format would they adopt to make it work?