Posts Tagged ‘VHF’

It’s Just Not That Complicated!

In a survey guaranteed not to bring smiles to the faces of TV manufacturers, 14,000 TV owners around the globe are downplaying the importance of Internet connectivity and 3D capability as they decide to purchase a new TV.

The DisplaySearch study, which is summarized here, shows that 3D capability runs a distant third behind LED backlights and LAN or WiFi connections in order of importance, and that order of importance is remarkably consistent worldwide, except in Indonesia (3D was ranked #1, just ahead of LED backlights) and India (Internet connectivity and 3D functionality were close behind LED backlights).

In some countries, 3D was one of the weakest drivers of the TV replacement cycle, ranking near the bottom of the list in Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. LED backlighting was three times more important than 3D in the USA, and about twice as important as Internet connectivity. In urban China, 3D commanded about 25% of the interest of LED backlighting, while in Russia, the number was closer to 10%.

Indonesians are apparently contrarians. They ranked 3D capability as “most important” of all three features, edging out LED backlights by about 20%. In India, the three drivers were almost equally weighted, while in France, Internet connectivity outranked both LEDs and 3D.

This must be the season of studies! DisplaySearch’s parent company NPD also released a report last week that stated 15 percent of U.S. consumers reported using a Blu-ray player in the prior six months to March 2011, up from 9 percent the prior year. By way of comparison, 57 percent of U.S consumers reported using a standard (red laser) DVD player in 2010, unchanged from 2009.

The NPD summary doesn’t break down how, exactly, the study group “used a Blu-ray player” in the six month period. Was it for streaming Netflix? Watching Hulu? Watching rented or purchased Blu-ray movies? We don’t know.

Other interesting tidbits: 49 percent of Sony PlayStation 3 owners are viewing Blu-ray movies on their consoles at least once a month, and Y-Y sales of Blu-ray players have increased 16%.

In their press release, NPD makes the case that sales of Blu-ray discs are starting to offset the decline in DVD sales. Keep in mind that NPD identified 116 million current physical disc buyers in the United States (not sure how they made that determination), down from 128 million in 2009 – a decline of about 10%. The 26 million Blu-ray buyers ‘offsetting’ that number amount to about 22% of the ‘current’ total.

The most interesting part of the study was summarized near the end, where it was reported 50% of consumers who intend to buy a Blu-ray player in the next six months said that they were primarily interested in using said players to view “available subscription video download services” (read: Netflix) as opposed to buying and/or renting Blu-ray movies.

If NPD had told us how respondents were using their Blu-ray players, we might have enough information to spot a trend. Alas, we can only assume that streaming is becoming a bigger driver of Blu-ray player sales than the discs themselves. 50% is a substantial number!

Even so, both surveys may tie together nicely. The lower levels of interest in Internet-connected TVs in the first survey may be due to the fact that late model TVs can add Internet connectivity a lot less expensively with a connected Blu-ray player.

Why replace a perfectly good 5- or 6-year-old LCD or plasma TV when you can ‘soup it up’ for another $125 – $150? That’s exactly what I did with my 2008-vintage Panasonic TH-42PZ80U 1080p plasma TV, installing a Panasonic DMP-BD85 connected Blu-ray player to replace an older red laser DVD player. I watch about 1-2 Blu-ray movies per month on it at most, and it streams Netflix quite nicely.

There’s no question we’re seeing a big change in how movies and TV shows are acquired and watched, and the playing field is tilting more towards streaming with every passing month. This change affects everyone from movie studios (some of which have been announcing sizable layoffs in recent weeks) to cable companies (Gen Y viewers are more likely to cut their cable ‘cords’ and rely on free OTA TV and broadband streaming) and retailers of packaged media (Wal-Mart and Best Buy have scaled back the size of their CD, DVD, and Blu-ray departments in the past year, and of course, Blockbuster went into bankruptcy last year and has been closing stores left and right).

In the meantime, I’m still waiting for that consumer survey that really drills down to see (a) just how consumers are using Blu-ray players, (b) what they think of renting and purchasing packaged media in general, (c) if they are seriously considering ‘cutting the cord’ – or have cut it already, and (d) if and how they supplement streaming video and YouTube with free over-the-air digital TV and HDTV.

Of course, that survey would have to be conducted by an organization that is primarily interested in finding out the truth, and letting the facts point to a conclusion instead of jumping to one like the DEG did recently, or advancing an agenda as the CEA has been doing.

Sigh…

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…

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?