Posts Tagged ‘Cable TV’

Cord-cutting: Yet More Perspectives

On the heels of the Consumer Electronics Association’s recent study of cord-cutters comes yet more research on the phenomenon. But this one should be taken more seriously than the CEA’s efforts because it focuses on a specific demographic – Generation Y, or those born in or after 1979.

 

‘Gen Ys’ are a critical group to watch. Their viewing habits and decisions are of tremendous interest to advertisers and marketers, as they currently occupy the lion’s share of the coveted 18-35 demographic.

 

Gen Ys literally grew up with computers and embrace new electronic gadgets more quickly than Gen Xers and us ‘old fogies’ in the Baby Boomer group. They are ‘connected’ with smart phones, laptops, and tablets, and are just as likely to search out video content on the Internet as watch it through cable or satellite TV services.

 

The study, conducted by research firm Ideas and Solutions! of Los Angeles, states that pay TV service providers are at risk of losing this group due to increasing price sensitivity to subscription television. According to a story in MediaPost, 69% of so-called ‘on the fence’ Gen Y cable customers are classified as ‘at risk’ for dropping service because it’s just too expensive.

 

This group spends nearly half of their TV viewing time watching Netflix and Hulu. Of the survey group that still favors pay TV, Netflix and Hulu viewing dropped to about 25%.

 

The survey results should surprise no one who knows Gen Y well. I have two ‘connected’ Gen Ys in my family (ages 25 and 20), and they’re always looking for ways to cut down on expenses. Some Gen Ys have enormous college loans and low-paying jobs (or are unemployed, or temping), so pay TV is an expensive luxury when compared to rent, groceries, and gas for the car (if they own one!).

 

This group is also more interested in broadband access than pay TV channel packages, and that’s already having an impact on the established subscription TV business.  A story in today’s Wall Street Journal quotes Time Warner CEO Glenn Britt as saying that broadband is rapidly becoming the company’s ‘anchor product,’ and that “…people are telling us that if they were down to their last dollar, they’d drop broadband last.”

 

Britt went on to point out that TW’s broadband customer count is closing in on its residential video customer count (9.5M vs. 12.3M in Q1 ’11). Also, TW has another 2M broadband-only customers, many of which have dropped cable for satellite services. You can be sure Gen Ys are well represented in the totals for broadband service.

 

The result is that TW may shift to more of a ‘single play’ marketing effort, pushing broadband at the expense of subscription TV and voice over IP (VoIP). The latter service is a harder sell to Gen Ys, as they rely on their mobile phones and often have no wireline telephones in their apartments and homes.

 

In my experience, Gen Ys who are informed about or become aware of free, over-the-air digital TV are quite happy to watch it as a substitute for pay TV, mixing it with YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. The question is; how many Gen Ys even know they can get free digital TV?

 

Maybe it’s time for a new outreach campaign by NAB, broadcast networks, and TV station ownership groups!

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…

DEG Cranks Up The 3D Hype Machine

Last Tuesday, the Digital Entertainment Group, an advocacy group comprised of CE manufacturers and Hollywood content producers, released a study conducted by research firm SmithGeiger that claims 3D TV owners are overwhelmingly happy with their purchases.

This is hardly earth-shaking news, considering the source. The DEG’s job is to promote things like 3D and the Blu-ray optical disc format. Both are key parts of the revenue stream for TV manufacturers and movie studios.

The survey, which you can read here, does reveal many interesting ‘a-has!’ if you read carefully between the lines. Let’s take them in order.

Quote: “Of those who view programming in 3D, an overwhelming 88 percent rated the 3D picture quality positively, compared to 91 percent for their 2D picture quality.” Really? Why didn’t 3D picture quality rate as high as or higher than 2D picture quality? Wasn’t that a key consideration in buying a 3D TV in the first place?

Quote: “And, 24 percent of those who view 3D at home reported watching more television – in 2D and 3D – since purchasing their new 3D TV.” OK, can we break that down a bit further? How much more TV were they watching, on average? 10% more? 50%? 75%? We don’t know. And what’s the breakdown between increased 3D and 2D viewing? Again, we don’t know.

Here’s what I found much more interesting: 75% of the people in the DEG study who bought a new 3D TV did NOT report watching more 2D or 3D programming after their purchase, while 1% are actually watching less TV. Why? Because there wasn’t enough 3D programming to watch?

Does ‘watching more television’ include DVDs and Blu-ray movies? We just don’t have enough details here, so the ‘24% reported watching more TV’ claim is statistically meaningless without context. (And what about that 1% who are now watching less TV? Interesting…)

Quote: “Also, 85 percent of 3D TV owners surveyed would prefer to watch half, most, or all of their programs in 3D.” Looking at the tables actually provided by DEG, 14% said they’d watch most programs in 2D. But the group that said “it would be an even split” (using the report’s own wording) came to 23%, and a group that is stuck at 50-50 clearly does not favor either side – even though the DEG counted this group in the 85%.

I read the results this way: 62% of respondents clearly would watch everything or most programming in 3D, while 23% don’t lean either way and 14% prefer 2D. If you are trying to make a case that there is a clear preference for 3D, the numbers presented say that 37% of the sample group does not prefer to ‘watch most or all programming in 3D.’ While that still presents a 2:1 ratio favorable to 3D viewing, it is quite different from the 85% figure claimed by the DEG.

Quote: “Of the 3,100 3D TV owners surveyed, only a handful experienced any discomfort when using active shutter 3D glasses.” All right, I’m intrigued – what is “a handful?” Read further into the report and you will see that (a) 18% of respondents “never feel like I fully adjust to the glasses” while an additional 8% state that, “it takes several minutes for me to adjust to the glasses.” That is a total of 26% respondents who either have on-going problems with 3D glasses or take a long time to get used to 3D eyewear.

And the DEG survey numbers are in line with research done in human vision response by several universities and the American Optometrists Association. At the ADA/3D@Home conference in New York City a couple of months ago, the estimates I heard were that as much as 25% of the general population cannot see 3D correctly.

If the DEG thinks 26% is “a handful,” they are delusional.

Quote: “With an average of 2.38 pairs of glasses at home, it is clear that 3D TV owners are actively using their 3D TVs for viewing 3D.” If I had drawn that conclusion from the statistics presented in this survey, I would have gotten a big, fat “F” from my statistics professor at Syracuse University, not to mention my logic professor at Seton Hall!

Here’s what he would have said to me: Make sure you have all of the facts before you draw any conclusions! Facts such as: Anyone who bought a Samsung 3DTV in the past year got 2 pairs of glasses with it as part of a 3D starter kit. Did you buy an LG Infinia 3D TV bundle last fall? You got four pairs of glasses with it.

In fact, so many promotions bundled two or more pairs of glasses with the purchases of a 3D TV that the fact that the average home had 2.38 pairs doesn’t mean very much at all. Nor does it allow us to draw any definitive conclusions about how often viewers are using their TVs to watch 3D. All it means is that the average 3D TV owner has about 2 pairs of 3D glasses.

Quote: “More than 7 out of 10 of those surveyed use a Blu-ray 3D or 3D-capable player.” For what purpose, exactly? The survey question is incomplete, as it doesn’t ask specifically whether respondents “use a Blu-ray 3D or 3D-capable player” to watch 3D, a mix of 3D and 2D content, or mostly 2D content?

Here’s my question: How many of those Blu-ray players are mostly being used to watch Netflix streaming, and how often?

The accompanying chart shows that 87% use a cable or satellite set-top box, while 71% use a Blu-ray or other 3D-capable player (not a PlayStation 3), and 61% use a DVR or TiVo.

But the chart also says that 28% of respondents use a standard-definition DVD player. Why include that number, as it’s not relevant to 3D content playback? 34% of respondents have a Nintendo Wii (as I do), and it’s not a 3D delivery platform, either.

The survey goes on to mention that that “44 percent of 3D TV owners purchased their Blu-ray player bundle with their TV.” If these purchases really were 3D TV bundle deals, then 44% of 3D TV owners actually got a free Blu-ray player as part of their TV bundle. That was made quite clear in the advertising and marketing for various 3D TV bundle packages. Maybe the DEG isn’t quite clear on the meaning of the words “free” or “bundle?”

At the May 24 Connected TV and 3D event in New York City, DEG president Ron Sanders (also president of Warner Home Video) stated,  “The results of this landmark study clearly show that 3D TV owners are overwhelmingly happy with their 3D experience…this bodes well for the future of the Home 3D category.”

Really? My statistics professor would have been ROFL at hearing that. Here’s what my conclusions are.

(1) 75% of the survey respondents who bought a new 3D TV aren’t watching any more TV as a result of that purchase. That could mean they aren’t that enthusiastic about 3D, or that they just bought the TV as an upgrade and made sure it had 3D capability in it that they may or may not use. We don’t know enough to say – SmithGeiger didn’t ask.

(2) About two-thirds of the respondents want to watch most if not all of their programming in 3D. That is an interesting number and one which should be re-sampled a year from now.

(3) 26% of the respondents either cannot use 3D glasses at all or have measurable difficulty in adapting to 3D eyewear. That’s right in line with educated estimates and is a substantial impediment to widespread 3D TV adoption.

(4) The average number of pairs of 3D glasses in survey households is not substantially higher than the number of free glasses given away in 3D TV bundles. And we have NO idea how often they are being used, as SmithGeiger never bothered to ask.

(5) We know that 7 out of 10 respondents have Blu-ray players. We also know that many respondents have cable and satellite boxes. There are more of the latter than of the former. (Stop the presses!) What we DON’T know is how often those Blu-ray players and set-top boxes are being used to watch 3D content.

In fact, it’s mind-boggling that SmithGeiger didn’t ask any questions respondents about the number of hours per day, week, and month they actually spend watching 3D content!

Other fun tidbits:

(6) 78% of PlayStation 3 owners have upgraded their consoles for viewing 3D Blu-ray movies, and 76% of PS3 owners upgraded to play 3D games. Yet the following chart in the DEG study shows that only 7% of PS3 owners play 75 to 100% of their games in 3D, while 59% (by far the largest group) said that 25% or less of their game-playing is in 3D. There’s a disconnect here.

(7) 55% of 3D TV owners “would definitely” buy a 3D TV again. What – only half? I thought 88% of them loved their 3D TV picture quality! 25% of respondents said they “would probably” buy another 3D TV, while 14% said they “might or might not.” 7% said they “probably would not or definitely would not” buy a 3D TV again.

I interpret those numbers to mean that roughly half of the survey respondents are either (a) lukewarm about, (b) indifferent to, or (c) opposed to buying a 3D TV again.

That hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement for 3D TV, so it’s surprising that SmithGeiger didn’t ask the logical follow-up question: “Please list the reasons why you would buy or not buy a 3D TV again?”

Given the DEG’s position as industry cheerleader for 3D and Blu-ray, I’m not at all surprised in the way the survey results were stated. There is clearly a need for objective, in-depth analysis of why people have purchased 3D TVs, how they use them, and what their like and dislikes about 3D TV are.

But this survey and report doesn’t do the job. It’s clearly presented as more ‘spin’ that fact. There are too many holes in its methodology and flaws in its results  to be taken seriously as an objective analysis of the trends in 3D TV adoption rates and the factors that drive them.

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!