Posts Tagged ‘Cable TV’

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?

Cable TV – Socialism?

We’ve just passed through a very contentious mid-term election, characterized by a change in the political majority in the House of Representatives, and a smaller margin in the Senate.

In addition to the usual established political parties, a newer movement, the self-named Tea Party, is grounded in protests against ‘big government,’ deficit spending, and ‘creeping socialism’ and has managed to secure quite a few seats for itself in Washington come next January.

Regardless of how you feel about the recent tempestuous election and its outcome (which isn’t anything new; review your American history and you’ll find similar political uprisings in the past), you’d have to agree that there is widespread concern about our government trying to be all things to all people, filing in the economic holes that free market, capitalist systems often leave behind.

The way our system of government works now, many of your tax dollars go to benefit people in other towns, cities, counties, and even states. You may not be aware of it (most people aren’t), but for every mile you drive on a federally-subsidized interstate highway, someone in another state is driving on a similar highway, part of which was paid for with your tax dollars. (n some states, LOTS of your tax dollars.)

Is that socialism? Sure it is! Our legislators made a decision that all American citizens benefit from an interstate highway system, even if most of us never drive more than 50 miles from home.

Now, back to my cable TV analogy. You pay taxes because you have to, and your tax dollars subsidize many government agencies and programs. But you don’t pay cable TV bills because you have to. After all, no one forces you to watch television!

Yet, your cable TV payments subsidize numerous TV networks that you’ll probably never watch. That’s because your cable TV operator has decided that all of its subscribers benefit from having 200+ channels of programming to choose from, even if most viewers never watch more than 15 channels.

Is this socialism? Essentially. Your cable TV payments (beyond operating costs and profit) are split up and shared among a wide variety of channels using a tiered model of distribution. You pay for a block (tier) of channels, and you can watch or ignore them – it’s your choice. This revenue structure ensures that all cable TV networks get a guaranteed rate of return, although there is quite a disparity between the most popular networks like ESPN (over $4 per subscriber) and small-audience channels like Lifetime and Oxygen (nickels and dimes per subscriber).

Trouble is; many Americans are trying to make ends meet in a recession right now. And all of their monthly expenses are coming under scrutiny, including ever-escalating cable TV costs. So it’s not unreasonable to ask why cable companies expect them to pay every month for an ‘all-you-can-eat buffet’ when smaller, a la carte dishes will suffice.

And there’s the thrust of my argument. Cable TV revenue subsidizes minor TV networks and channels that would never make it on their own in a free market system – they just wouldn’t draw enough viewers. Yet, we still have to pay for them anyway and keep them alive whether they deserve to stay in business, or not.

Satellite TV systems, FiOS, and U-Verse also work the same way. You pay a flat monthly rate and are delivered a slew of channels, many of which you’ll simply ignore as you stay hooked to ESPN, Discovery, Fox News, USA, AMC, MSNBC, TBS, TNT, and other ratings leaders.

Is it time to move to a different model? You betcha, especially when cable TV channel subscriptions are being dropped like hot potatoes. Even the head of Time Warner cable, Glenn Britt, has acknowledged that it is probably time to come up with ‘value’ cable TV packages that will convince customers to stay aboard, yet deliver the popular channels that viewers really want. (For more on this story, read what GigaOM had to say about Britt’s comments.)

The cable TV industry has vigorously resisted any moves towards a la carte pricing, because channel tiers are best for the company’s bottom line. But that may have to change, as consumers start to value Internet connections more than TV channel packages and access TV content over broadband connections in lieu of changing channels.

So my question is this: If socialism is supposedly a bad thing when it comes to government, why is it a good thing when it comes to cable TV service?

3CD: Well, that was fun. I’m bored. What’s next?

I stopped in at my local Best Buy this past Saturday (10/30) to look for an inexpensive upscaling DVD player (yeah, I know that’s redundant) for my in-laws.

While I was there, I wandered around the store to see what was being showcased in the store demos. 3D, which was a big thing back in April, had clearly fizzled out – at least, as far as store personnel were concerned.

Of four possible 3D demo stations, only one had any glasses – the Sony Bravia 3D demo in the Magnolia section. A nearby Panasonic 3D demo had clips from Avatar rolling in 3D on a plasma TV, but not a pair of glasses to be found.

At the entrance to the Magnolia store was a Samsung 55-inch LCD 3D demo. Trouble was, the channel was set to a 2D telecast of the Michigan State – Iowa college football game and no 3D glasses were anywhere to be seen.

Behind the service counter in the regular TV section was yet another 3D demo, this time featuring the 46-inch UN46C7000 Samsung LCD TV. And just like my last visit, the TV was showing Monsters vs. Aliens in 2D, again sans 3D glasses.

A possible fifth demo at the end of one of the aisles used to feature Panasonic’s 50VT20 plasma, but it had been taken down. This was the only demo that had any working 3D glasses a few months back.

So, what was all the  buzz about at BB this time? Why, Sony Internet TV, of course!

If you think TV remotes are complicated, wait until you try THIS keyboard!

Yep, it’s time to get out on the Internet and dig for content, using Google’s search engine and Sony’s incredibly small and dense keyboard. I didn’t see a single person attempt to use it during my 30 minute visit to the store.

In addition to Sony’s support for Google TV, Logitech has a new set-top box you can connect to the Ethernet port on your existing TV – or to the HDMI input.

Sony also showed a new “Internet TV Blu-ray Disc Player” that incorporates the Google interface. It’s the silvery box in the lower middle part of the photo, and encourages you to “take advantage of Full HD 1080p Blu-ray Disc Capabilities.” (???) No mention of 3D anywhere in the exhibit, so there may be a ‘separation of church and state’ thing going on as far as Sony is concerned.

Oh, and that inexpensive upscaling DVD player? I wound up going down the street to 6th Avenue Electronics and scoring a Panasonic DVD-S58PP-K with HDMI output and CEC for $50. Can’t beat that with a stick.

How to Watch FOX 5 and My 9 Without Cable (updated)

Attention, Cablevision (and Time-Warner, and Comcast customers): The dispute with FOX 5 may be over, but it could happen again with another cable TV system – or another TV network. Here’s how to future-proof your TV reception against another retransmission rights dispute.

There are other ways to receive WNYW (FOX 5) and WWOR (My 9). Read on. One of them may work for you, and if so, you can continue to enjoy football and baseball while Fox and Cablevision “punt” this rights dispute back and forth to each other.

Here’s what you need to know: WNYW broadcasts a digital TV signal on physical UHF TV channel 44, even though the station identifies itself as “5-1.” And WWOR (My 9) broadcasts its DTV signal on physical UHF channel 38, even though it identifies as “9-1.”

So that means at the least that you need a UHF TV antenna. They’re not very large and they’re not expensive, either.

IF YOU OWN A NEW FLATSCREEN TV (VINTAGE 2007 – PRESENT)

All TVs manufactured after March 1, 2007 must include a digital TV tuner by law. So your new TV is already equipped to pick up WNYW. If you live within 10 miles of the Empire State Building, all you will need is a simple UHF antenna.

Radio Shack’s model T#749, catalog # 15-1874, is an excellent choice to start. It does not require any power, and if it doesn’t work, you can return it for a full refund within 30 days.  The cost is $12. Radio Shack’s Web site says this model is available in most stores.

(1) Connect this antenna to the “ANT IN” or “RF” threaded jack on the back of your TV. The loop portion is what is used to pick up WNYW, along with other UHF DTV channels like WCBS, WNBC, and WWOR (My 9). (If you want to pick up other VHF channels like WABC-7, WPIX-11, and WNET-13, extend the rabbit ears all the way, too.)

(2) Switch to the TV input. Next, consult your TV’s owner manual to find the menu selection for “Channel Scan” or “Scan for Channels.” Enter this menu, and make sure that “Air,” “Broadcast,” or “OTA” is selected and not “Cable” when you start a channel scan.

(3) Your TV will take about 2 – 3 minutes to scan for any over-the-air digital TV channels it can find. You should see a list of those channels as the scan progresses. If you see “WNYW 5-1” pop up, you are in luck! If not, reposition the antenna and try another scan. HINT: Elevate the antenna and place it near any open windows if you do not pick up the signal.

(4) WNYW also carries the WWOR My 9 programs as channel 5-2. And WWOR simulcasts WNYW FOX 5 programs on 9-2. So if channel 5 doesn’t come in after several tries, you may still be able to watch FOX programming on channel 9-2. Check that either or both channels were scanned and saved to memory.

IF YOU DON’T HAVE A NEW TV

Radio Shack continues to sell DTV converter boxes, even though the analog TV shut-down happened a year ago. Check your store for model DTX9950, catalog #: 15-150 (Digital Stream). It sells for $60. This converter box can be easily connected to your older TV set, using the RF or AV cables supplied with the converter.

(1) After connecting to your older TV, follow the converter boxes’ instructions on how to connect an antenna and scan for channels. The Radio Shack 15-1874 antenna works very well with this converter box, too.

(2) Again, look to see that WNYW 5-1, WWOR 9-1, or both channels have been scanned and saved to memory. You will be all set to watch the Jets game, NFC football, and the World Series. It will NOT be in high-definition, though.

IF YOU LIVE 10 – 15 MILES FROM EMPIRE

You may need an amplified antenna. The Radio Shack model 15-254, catalog 15-254 may do the trick. It costs about $35 and you can rotate the loop antenna for best reception. Radio Shack’s Web site says this model is available in most stores.

IF YOU LIVE 15 MILES OR MORE FROM EMPIRE

If you are more than 15 miles from the Empire State Building, a rooftop or attic antenna for UHF may be required. These are available at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Radio Shack.

The Radio Shack model U-75R, catalog 15-2160 is an excellent choice. It costs $40 and is small enough to place in an attic, by a window, on a deck, etc. Just unfold the antenna elements, hook up the coaxial cable to your digital TV or converter box, and aim it in the direction of the Empire State Building. Scan for channels on your digital TV or converter box as before.

Good luck! Also reference these articles about indoor and outdoor DTV reception:

http://www.hdtvexpert.com/?p=449

http://www.hdtvexpert.com/?p=36

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?