Posts Tagged ‘broadcasting’

Cord-cutting: Funny Thing About That… (Updated 10/28/10)

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the 10/27/10 post.)

Yesterday, Comcast Corporation announced its 3rd quarter financial results, and they reveal a disturbing trend: 275,000 basic cable subscribers said goodbye to Big C, helping to put a pinch on the company’s net income, which dropped 8.2% to $867M on sales of $9.4B.

According to a story on the Fierce Cable Web site, remaining Comcast subscribers paid an average of $129.75 per month for various services.

The story suggests four factors that are driving people to drop cable TV subscriptions – the economy, the flagging housing market, constant rate increases, and the digital TV transition.  Comcast Cable Communications President Neil Smit was quoted in the story as saying there are no signs that the customers are giving up cable for over-the-top (Internet TV) services. “All our active surveys have seen almost no impact from OTT… (a) small number of customers appear to be going over-the-air (DTTB) more than any over-the-top impact.”

Through September of this year, Comcast lost 622,000 cable TV subscribers, according to a story in the 10/28/10 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. That represents about 3 percent of its subscriber base and about $300M in revenue. Smits said that 40% of those cancellations were basic cable tier subscribers.

By this time last year, Comcast had lost 424,000 cable TV subscribers. The drop rate has gone up by nearly 50% in just one year, although some of that was offset by new subscriptions for almost 250,000 broadband customers, 228,000 VoIP customers, and 219,000 digital video customers. (It’s reasonable to assume there is lots of overlap in those last three numbers, as the three services are often taken as a ‘triple play’ bundle.)

The term “cord-cutting” first appeared in early 2008 as the current recession took hold, forcing many households to re-assess the amount of money they spent each month on communications and entertainment services.  It’s not unusual for a typical ‘triple play’ service (VoIP, broadband and cable TV) to cost $130 a month or more.

Add in monthly charges for a standard family wireless phone plan, and we’re starting to talk some real money here!  So it’s no wonder that consumers are looking for more economical ways to watch TV – and free, over-the-air digital TV (with lots of HD) is definitely one of them.

DTTB also solves the current Fox – Cablevision dispute quite nicely for several million subscribers in the New York City metropolitan area – that is, if they figure out how to connect an antenna to their digital TV. In many cases, that means nothing more than a $12 radio Shack UHF loop and rabbit ears.

Comcast COO Steve Burke called attention to the problem of cord-cutting a year ago at the CTAM convention in Denver, CO, pointing out that “…An entire generation is growing up, if we don’t figure out how to change that behavior so it respects copyright and subscription revenue on the part of distributors, we’re going to wake up and see cord cutting.”

How prescient. As I’ve written in the past, families are starting to value their broadband service more than tiers of dozens of cable channels, most of which are never viewed anyway. Add in video streaming from Netflix (something Redbox is also about to offer) for a flat monthly rate, plus selected network offerings on Hulu, and the cable industry has a legitimate concern.

No one should ever think they can’t price themselves out of a market. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. It’s very clear from recent trends that many consumers are placing a greater value on high-speed Internet access over cable TV channel packages, a trend that may result in Comcast (and other service providers) delivering metered broadband service in the not-too-distant future – especially if TV subscriptions continue to decline.

The challenge for Comcast and other cable MSOs is how to re-structure their standard TV channel offerings into a more affordable a la carte model, served up on demand.

That’s obviously what consumers want, and they’re voting with their wallets. Is Big Cable listening?

To DVR, Or Not To DVR?

Marist College just released a poll that shows almost 70 percent of Americans still watch their favorite television shows at the time they are broadcast, and only 16 percent record them to watch at a later date.

What’s more, it’s an ‘age’ thing. Close to 80 percent of TV viewers ages 45 and up still prefer so-called appointment television, choosing to watch a show when it is normally aired on terrestrial, cable, or satellite TV networks. But only 56 percent of viewers below 45 years of age do so.

The highest percentage of real-time TV viewers live in the Midwestern states (77%), while the lowest percentage (61%) reside in the West. Households with incomes of $50,000 or more are slightly less likely to watch in real time (64%) than households with incomes below $50,000 (70%).

Not surprisingly, 15% of those surveyed under age 45 were more likely to watch TV online using a computer, something only 3% of respondents over age 45 admitted to. DVR usage was highest among women under 45 and in households making $50K and up.

One of the more interesting parts of the survey showed that 9% of respondents living in the West do not watch any TV at all. That number contrasts with only 3% of Midwest residents who leave the boob tube shut down.

The poll of 1,005 people has a margin of error of ± 3%.

Goodbye Flo, We Hardly Knew Ye

Last Tuesday, Web outlet paidContent.com broke the story that Qualcomm was preparing to shut down its underperforming FLO TV business unit this coming December.

FLO TV, for those readers who’ve never heard of it (and that’s a large group, apparently), is a proprietary subscription mobile TV service that broadcasts nationwide on UHF channel 55. The service, also bundled as a ‘white label’ wholesale product to Verizon and AT&T subscribers, delivered several channels of TV programming specifically formatted for mobile and handheld devices.

Among the networks offered to FLO subscribers were Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon, and CNN. The service first launched in 2006 as MediaFLO, and picked up Verizon (VCAST) and AT&T Mobile as re-sellers in 2007.

The FLO will be cut off in December…

Unfortunately for Qualcomm, FLO never caught on with Verizon and AT&T customers. Customers didn’t care to watch movies and long-form programming on cell phones, opting instead for ‘snacking’ on news and sports clips.

The result was a decision to market the service directly to consumers in the summer of 2009, with big box stores including Best Buy and Radio Shack offering a 3.5” LCD FLO TV receiver for $250, along with a $9 per month service contract with a three-year commitment.

The total out-of-pocket expense to watch 12 channels of programming – $570 – was not appealing to potential customers, particularly with the new ATSC MH mobile digital TV service getting off the ground. Why pay all that money when you could potentially access thousands of digital TV stations across the country for free?

Another strike against FLO TV: It didn’t offer any local news, weather, and sports broadcasts, which are the three biggest drivers for mobile media consumption. To make matters worse, smart phones were already providing Web access to video content providers like Netflix and Hulu, not to mention Web podcasts of sports, news, and weather programming; all on a flat rate data plan that also included email access. That’s not a battle Qualcomm could hope to win.

Ironically, FLO viewership numbers surged with ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 World Cup as the obituary was first being drafted back in June. But it was a case of too little, too late.

Nice try, but no cigar.

Qualcomm’s plans for what’s left of FLO TV and its nationwide network of over one hundred channel 55 TV transmitters (and in some markets, channel 56) aren’t clear yet. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hand-wringing coming from the San Diego corporate headquarters.

That’s because Qualcomm acquired the UHF spectrum relatively inexpensively earlier this decade, and now feels that the channels are worth at least $2 billion today, based on current spectrum auction results.  So they can sell off their real estate and still pocket a nice piece of change for their efforts, which among other things included relocating (at Qualcomm’s expense) a few UHF TV stations broadcasting on channel 55 prior to the analog TV shut-down in June of 2009.

Is there a market for subscription-based mobile digital TV? It would appear not. And there’s no guarantee that the free MH services just getting off the ground will be sustainable, either.

But in a day and age of customers feeling they are being ‘nickel-and-dimed to death’ for cable and satellite TV, Internet access, cellular phone service, and landline telephone service, FLO TV never stood a chance.

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…

NAB 2010: A Show in Transition

Some of the big questions facing attendees as their flights landed in Las Vegas were these: Can NAB survive? Will it evolve into something different? Is it even that important to attend NAB anymore?

The answer to all three questions is “yes.” Even though attendance was still down from 2008 (NAB claimed 83,000 ‘officially;’ my guesstimate was more like 55,000 to 60,000), there were plenty of companies in attendance with lots of cool products to check out.

That said, the show is undergoing a rapid transformation away from a traditional ‘broadcasting’ show to a mix of InfoComm and CES – hot new products for professionals. Of course, 3D was all over the place. But so was networked video, which dominated the upper and lower South Hall exhibit areas.

Booths were smaller this year, and that’s not going to change any time soon…not when the typical booth is showing products that have price tags in the hundreds and low thousands. Contrast that with NAB shows 15 years ago, when most of the price tags had three and four zeros in them!

You know attendance was off when this was one of the largest booths in the Central Hall!

On the other hand, the alternative wasn’t too attractive…

The smaller booths and lower number of exhibitors resulted in wider aisles and less traffic – a plus. But it also resulted in NAB placing the main registration area smack in the middle of the Central Hall, something I’ve never seen before.  And there was plenty of wide-open space at the end of that hall, as well in the North and South Halls.

Can NAB be staged in three halls? Absolutely! And can you see everything you need to see in three days? Try two days. (Thursday has become ‘exhibitor bonding day,’ to quote a fellow editor.) I could have covered my beat in two days if necessary.

THE TRENDS

Not surprisingly, 3D was a big topic this year, although not to the same extent as it was at CES. The SMPTE/ETC/EBU Digital Cinema Summit focused entirely on 3D for both days, and I was fortunate enough to deliver one of the papers to a jammed room of 500+ attendees.

Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Canon, Grass Valley, AVID, Doremi, Harris, Evertz, and Ross Video were just some of the companies showing 3D products in Vegas. Those products ranged from 3D monitors and cameras to 3D workflow (acquisition, editing, post, effects, and playout) software and hardware.

Sony’s LM4251TD 42-inch LCD monitor uses micropolarizers for passive 3D viewing.

Other specialized 3D brands were in attendance, too. TD Vision, Miracube, Mistika, and HDlogix had nice exhibits in the South Hall, down the street from Grass Valley. Smaller companies like Cine-tal occupied the 3D Pavilion nearby, while Motorola and Ericsson showcased 3D transport and format recognition products upstairs.

Although the consumer TV market is seeing a big push towards active-shutter 3D TVs and monitors, the emphasis at NAB was on passive 3D viewing (cheaper glasses, more expensive displays). JVC, Hyundai, and LG all manufacture them, and there were plenty of folks standing around with RealD X-pol eyewear watching the demos.

The projector guys were on top of things, too. projectiondesign showed a stacked pair of 3-chip 1080p lightboxes in the Mistika booth, using linear polarized glasses. HDI showed a 100-inch, 1080p LCoS rear-projection TV in the HDlogix booth, also using X-pol glasses. Christie also had suitable 3D projection systems out for inspection.

There were also some demos that left me scratching my head, such as Canon’s dual-projection X-pol 3D demo, using a pair of REALiS WUXGA (1920×1200) LCoS projectors. While it worked well, it requires two separate projectors and outboard 3D filter holders – too klunky! (A Canon rep told me that was because of the 60 Hz frame rate limitation on the internal video processor.)

Well, it IS 3D, but I doubt Canon will sell very many of these rigs…

Broadband video and IPTV were also big this year. This market for MPEG-4 AVC over Ethernet, fiber, or private data networks is exploding, and encoder companies such as Adtec, Vbrick, Harmonic, Ericsson, Harris, Motorola, and Digital Rapids were showing a full range of compatible products.

Sezmi also occupied a booth at the show. This company has a unique selling proposition – a set-top box that receives both terrestrial (read: free) digital TV and selected cable channels carried on secondary terrestrial channels. It also accesses a video-on-demand server through broadband connections (SDTV only) and has a customizable program guide for each user.

While not technically broadband, the nascent MH broadcast format was in abundance at NAB. MH uses MPEG-4 AVC coding in multiple streams with IP headers to send low-resolution video to handheld receivers, such as mobile phones and combo PDA/receiver products. MH is catching on in popularity with broadcasters, who see it as a more sensible alternative to simple multicasting of secondary channels that very few people may be watching.

ATSC MH on an iPhone? Brilliant! (There’s an app for everything!)

MY PICKS

After three days of walking around, I came up with a list of “finds” that I’ll share here. These are all products that represented clever thinking, breakthrough technology, and/or new price points. Some were easy to spot; others required quite a bit of digging. But they all made the trip to Lost Wages worth it (and that’s saying a lot, considering how airlines jam you in like sardines these days!).

TV Logic: This manufacturer of LCD broadcast monitor showed the world’s first active-matrix OLED broadcast monitor (unless you think Sony’s press announcement hit first, which it didn’t.) The LM-150 ($6,200) uses a LG Display 15-inch OLED panel with 1366×768 pixel resolution and come equipped with all the expected niceties including markers, crop marks, caption displays, over/underscan, and HD/SDI, HDMI, and analog video jacks. There’s also a 3D version in the works (TDM-150) that will sell for about $7,700.

This was the coolest product at the show. But will it REALLY last 30,000 hours?

Ericsson: In addition to a host of MPEG-4 and IPTV encoders, the ‘big E’ also showcased an innovative, iPad-like LCD touchscreen remote control/video viewer. Dubbed the IPTV remote, this product can dial up video from broadband, cable, satellite, and even your home network. Not only that, it can monitor weather sensors and your home security system. (Sound much like a Crestron product?) The IPTV remote will not be offered for sale at retail. Rather, it’s intended to be a content provider offering.

Christie: Have you seen their MicroTiles yet on the Colbert Report? These innovative ‘mini’ DLP projection cubes use LED light engines to power 800×600 DMDs (the actual working resolution is 720×540) and measure about 12” x 16.” They can be configured in just about any format you wish, including floor and ceiling projection, and up to 1024 can be driven at one time. The LED light source is specified to last over 60,000 hours. Think of LED-powered LEGOÔ blocks, and you’ve got the concept.

And YOU thought iPads were all the rage…

SmallHD: It wasn’t easy finding these guys behind the Sony booth, but they’d come up with a focus assist monitor for video and still cameras that they claim is the world’s smallest HD video monitor. The actual size is about 5.6 inches and the glass is WXGA (1280×800) LCD. It comes in two flavors – one for digital SLRs ($899) and one with SDI input ($1199). The monitors are an inch thick, weigh 10 ounces, and mount to hot shoes.

Z3 Technology: I found this booth on my last pass through the South Hall, and it was worth the stop. They showed the Z3-MVE-01 MPEG encoder, a compact box that codes HD up to 1920×1080 resolution using H.64 High Profile (up to 30Hz), with Ethernet and ASI outputs. Input compatibility includes composite, component, HDMI, DVI, and HD-SDI video…all for $5,000.

JVC’s 46-inch X-pol monitor always drew a crowd.

Adtec: I didn’t expect to see an HDMI-to-QAM modulator at the show, but that’s exactly what Adtec pulled out for me. The HDMI2QAM is a dual-channel design that encodes anything from the HDMI inputs (yes, they are HDCP-compliant) to a pair of quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) channels, using MPEG-2 encoding. The modulation format is selectable between 64-QAM (SD), 128-QAM (not widely use), and 256-QAM (HD). Bit rates are constant and optimized for each mode (i.e. 38.8 Mb/s for each HD channel).

 

Cydle: This new start-up demonstrated an app for iPods and iPhones that allows viewing of ATSC MH (A/153) video. Along with it comes the i30,  a battery-powered docking station with built-in antenna (UHF). This means that your ‘i-whatever’ has two batteries to draw from, so if you run low on talk power, simply switch to the i30 battery. Both can charge simultaneously. Cool!

Sezmi’s personal program guide rivals TiVo for user-friendliness.

Panasonic: I’ve seen it before at CES, but it now has a model number. The company’s first production camcorder now goes by the moniker AG-3DA1 and is yours for the low, low price of just $21,000. (Well, all things are relative, I guess.) The camera weighs about 6 and a half pounds and uses a pair of 2.l07 MP sensors (full 1920×1080) to record 1080i and 720p HD content to SD memory cards. Convergence and horizontal and vertical displacement are fully adjustable.

Panasonic gets another mention for the AG-AF100, which they claim is the world’s first Micro 4/3-inch (1.33:1) HD camcorder. That’s a big deal because the 4/3” format matches the coverage area of 35mm film frames…which means you can use standard 35mm film camera lenses to get effects like shallow focus, soft focus, and vignettes. The camera records to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards using the AVCHD format and supports 1080i/p and 720p formats, including 23.98/24/25 Hz.

Sony gets extra credit for announcing the world’s second (or first) AM-OLED professional video monitor. The PVM-750 ($3,850) is a bit smaller than TV Logic’s offering at 7.4 inches (16:9), and is not quite full HD resolution at 960×540 pixels. (Not that you’d notice on such  small screen!)  The PVM-750 has 3G HD-SDI, HDMI, and composite video inputs, the full range of adjustments from tally and markers to blue screen mode and AC/battery power operation. No word on lifespan of the display, but Sony uses small molecule (SM) OLED technology, as does LG Display.

LP Technologies rounds out my list with one of those ‘too good to be true’ products: An LCD-based 9 kHz to 3 GHz spectrum analyzer with USB 2.0 interface, built-in preamp, and Ethernet connectivity for remote monitoring. Sorry, no internal battery pack!) The USB hook-up can be used to save data in the Excel format, while the internal memory can tore 900 different waveforms. The display is a 6.4” 640×480 (VGA) LCD type. And the cost? Just $4,500…

Stick one of these on a Canon 5D MK II, and you can shoot an entire episode of ‘House!’ (No kidding!)