Tuesday, April 29, 2008

LTR rocks the box

Seeing as I've grown a bit weary of the ongoing presidential primary soap opera that seems to be dragging on until the 2012 primary season begins, I figure it's time for a change of pace. While Barack and Hillary beat the crap out of each other over crazy pastors and whatnot, let's talk about something we can really relate to. Let's talk television. Or, the future of it. And along the way, we'll test drive the hot new electronic gizmo everyone's talking about - the DTV converter box.

Most likely, you've heard the story before. I even wrote about it last Summer. Come next February, that old electronic box in your living room may produce nothing but electronic fuzz. That is, if something isn't done to bring it into the modern age. What is happening, as you have likely no doubt heard, is what will perhaps be a major milestone in broadcast television history, rivaling the old days of pioneers like Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, the day in 1928 when W2XB in Schenectady, New York and a few others fired up and started beaming 48-line images via the airwaves, and 1950, when stations started experimenting with broadcasting in color. Simply put, the way television's been transmitted more or less for the past 80 years is changing drastically. Say goodbye to Depression-era technology. And to static and ghost-like images. Say hello to digital television.

Television has evolved in a major way since the beginning. Many of us grew up in an era of watching only a few channels - NBC, ABC and CBS, the non-commercial station that played Sesame Street and perhaps one or two rerun channels, all via a box with two metal sticks sprouting out of the top. Soon cable TV arrived, which allowed us to watch faraway stations, HBO and porn without those silly metal sticks. Satellite TV gave us an alternate to the evolving cable monopolies, especially in places not yet wired, and also gave us gargantuan dishes in the backyards of America. Then came the VCR and the old laserdisc players, which gave viewers the ability to play program director. The VCR and laserdisc gave way to DVD and DVR's, and digital cable suddenly gave us access to hundreds of channels. And now, over-the-air television is playing catch-up.

Even with the penetration of cable and direct broadcast satellite into homes across America, 30-40% of television viewers across the country still watch the old fashioned way - with rabbit ear antennas pulling signals out of the air. That translates to tens of millions of people who either don't want to pony up to the cable or satellite monopolies, aren't interested in it, can't afford it, or just don't watch enough TV. Those are the people that will really notice the coming transition to the world of DTV.

DTV has been in the works around the world for over a decade. Researchers, developers, broadcasters and governments realized that the transmission of ones and zeros was much more efficient than that of clumsy, bandwidth-hogging analog waveforms. Countries around the world realized that this form of transmission would evolve very fast, and would eventually replace analog transmission. They started formulating switchover dates. European countries were the first to jump, and the United States even began setting their own analog shutoff dates. A early target of 2002 for the analog switchoff came and went, but nobody was even close to ready. A hard date of January 1, 2006 also came and went. Finally, Congress set it in stone - February 17, 2009 would be the day that full-power television broadcasters would officially turn off their analog transmitters and go solely digital. This time, everyone was ready. All television sets manufactured in the past year or so and sold as new in the United States are now required to be DTV-compliant. But the ones manufactured before that date that only receive analog signals will need a little help. Enter the digital converter box.

To make this whole DTV conversion palatable to the masses, lest they march the streets of Washington with torches and pitchforks over the prospects of shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a new TV set during a recession, the government wisely allocated funds to cover an unprecedented voucher program, The little plastic cards, free for the asking, could be redeemed for DTV converter boxes, which at that point didn't yet exist. The boxes themselves would enable reception of the new digital signals. Fast-forward to February 2008, which saw the mass unleashing of said little black boxes to the marketplace. Coupons, good for $40 off the price of these $50-60 devices, were sent out to viewers who requested them (provided they didn't already subscribe to cable or satellite.

Now, being a connoisseur of cheap hi-tech electronics, and one who finally ditched cable and the ridiculously high fees and monotonous programming that went along with it. I couldn't wait to get my vouchers in the mail (they send out a maximum of two per household). I even did a little research on each of them, just to be prepared. Upon receiving mine a few weeks ago, after what seemed like an eternity of waiting (that's the government for you), I went shopping.

My first box of choice was the Zenith DTT900, since I heard so many good things about it. I went to my neighborhood Radio Shack, which was one of the stores that supposedly stocked them. Every Radio Shack in town was sold out of them, according to the sales clerk, but they had quite a few of another model, the Digital Stream DTX9900, for the same price. I had never heard of it, nor Digital Stream for that matter, and was wary since I didn't do any research on this obscure model. Besides, it was butt-ugly. Later, I read that it was actually a pretty good box. The clerk who pointed me to the Digital Stream box said the Zenith model was hot, and selling very fast, but a new fresh shipment would arrive within a week or so.

I couldn't wait. I want my DTV! I ventured off to Best Buy for my backup option - their privately-branded Insignia box (which I knew they had in stock). Now, I suspected that this one and the Zenith were the same exact unit (I later found out they basically were), so I guess it was a fairly decent backup plan. Best Buy was obviously prepared for the masses, as they had quite a few of these in stock. Sold! At the checkout lane,the clerk also said that they were selling like mad. I noticed several red voucher cards scattered around her terminal.

So I got home and went through the ritual of ripping open the box to reveal the sexy contents, a process that, for hardcore tech geeks, is almost as exciting a process as peeling the clothes off a hot date. I proceeded to connect the wires to the back of the set (instructions? I don't need no stinkin' instructions!). I hit the power button on the remote, and the first thing it did was pop up a setup wizard on the screen. It asked me to specify an aspect ratio (seeing as my main set was about five years old, it was one of those tube-style sets with a 4:3 picture size). Then it did a search for channels. Now, I had doubts that it would pull in a great number of channels, since analog reception was basically crap with my chintzy antenna. I was proven wrong. This nifty little box pulled in a whopping 22 different ones (including the many various subchannels - the local PBS operation has 9 between their two stations). I even pulled in the local Ion channel, which I had never gotten. Not bad.

Of course, there were a few drawbacks. One of the reasons my reception sucks is that, even though I live no more than fifteen miles from most of the transmission towers in the city, there is an airport nearby. That messes up reception pretty bad sometimes. Instead of static and ghosting, with the new box I would occasionally find pixelation, frozen pictures or a plain black screen. Welcome to the world of digital. I realized that my old, crappy amplified antenna (purchased for a mere $10 at the local Big Lots) wasn't going to cut it. I did more research (antennaweb.com is a handy resource for this) and came up with a simple, somewhat attractive unit from Radio Shack that set me back around $20. Lo and behold - it worked! Now, all the signals in town came in crystal clear (the box has a signal strength meter that can be viewed for each channel). And I even pulled in a few low-powered stations, including the local signal-impaired Telemundo outlet (yes, I watch occasionally, even though my Spanish sucks). Now I'm able to watch soccer, Hong Kong martial arts flicks dubbed in Spanish, raunchy soap operas and whatever else they show.

Other drawbacks to almost all of the boxes available are the lack of better connection possibilities. My set is only five years old and fairly sophisticated, so it has connections in the back for S-video and component video hookups. The only options enclosed with the unit I purchased were an RF cable antenna jack and a little yellow composite video plug. At least there were two-channel stereo jacks. Also, on this unit, there is no analog pass-through, which some TV geeks and low-power broadcasters are griping about, though there are a few rare boxes that do have it (since my set has different input settings, I was able to plug the antenna straight in for analog capability). In addition, technological issues mean that your soon-to-be-obsolete VCR won't work quite the same when recording shows once analog goes bye-bye.

Of course, change is rather difficult for some, especially when it comes to the ubiquitous television set. So it goes without saying that this digital transition will be a bitter pill for some. How exactly does one explain that people will have to send in for a coupon, in order to go out and pay an average of $10-20 for something that enables them to get what they once could for free? And to buy yet another set-top box, of all things! Well, alongside this stick comes some pretty nice carrots. First of all, the picture and sound with DTV is near flawless, as far as television goes. The picture is DVD quality, and the sound is pretty close to CD.

The icing on the cake is that there are indeed more stations. If you live in a metropolitan area, all the local stations should come in static-free with some minor antenna positioning. In addition, some stations are carrying subchannels on their main digital signals. In other words, you get 2, 3, 4 or more stations for the price of one! Many public television stations are running multiple feeds, geared toward different audiences. During the early round of the NCAA basketball playoffs, CBS affiliates ran split feeds that showed up to three games at once. The Ion Television network, formerly Pax, a slowly improving, yet rather unremarkable operation located on small, often out-of-town UHF stations, runs stale reruns and a ton of infomercials. They do, however, carry some interesting programming, including such movies as "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," which was on last week. And then there's the Battlestar Galactica (the original) and Baywatch reruns on weekends. DTV allows Ion to penetrate more households than they could have ever hoped to before. Most of the network's affiliates have three additional subchannels, including one for kids (Qubo), some quasi-religious network called Worship and Ion Life, which, as far as I can tell, runs many episodes of a show called Get Out!, which is best described as very attractive women in bikinis setting off on outdoor adventures such as bungee jumping and alligator feeding (Okay, I admit - I've watched it).

Many NBC affiliates air a heavily-localized "Weather Plus" channel, designed to give The Weather Channel a much-needed run for its money. The AccuWeather Channel is also a competitor in this segment. New, niche-oriented networks of various types are quickly popping up that are geared toward subchannel coverage. A few entrepreneurs were smart enough to realize that the licensing of old dramas and sitcoms from the 50s-80s are relatively cheap and easy to obtain. Retro Television Network (RTN) is popping up on subchannels across the country, since so-called classic-oriented TV Land has started ignoring chestnuts such as Mission:Impossible, Happy Days and Hawaii Five-0 in favor of Fresh Prince marathons. Similar concepts such as Columbus' Dot 2 and MeTV, located on stations in Chicago and Milwaukee, have also taken flight. Stations in some smaller markets are even using subchannels to pick up network affiliations that don't otherwise exist there, such as The CW and the utterly pointless MyNetworkTV. Even big gun FOX has approached stations in rural areas with the idea of adding their affiliation to the subchannel, for those few fortunate souls who haven't yet heard of American Idol. Some individual stations are even using subchannels to set up separate independent operations.

In addition, the availability of the space-saving digital form of transmission allows for the broadcast of high-definition programming, not really possible before. Imagine watching a golf tournament played in lush surroundings where you can actually see the individual blades of grass. Unfortunately, you'll need an expensive HD set for the full effect, since the simple little converter box won't do hi-def. But the HD picture does indeed look sharp on an old tube TV. I can tell the difference.

Getting back to my new toy, one thing I noticed about the Insignia box (and the Zenith and a few others) is that it allows for switching the picture layout. Now, this part gets a little bit confusing. With the change to digital comes an overall new picture formatting standard, which is slowly being phased in. The longtime aspect ratio has been 4:3, or 4 units wide by 3 units tall (or 1.33:1). Let's assume that this is what most people still have in their homes (see picture at right).

The new standard, as you've no doubt seen on newer sets, is 16:9, or 16 wide by 9 tall (1.85:1). The 16:9 ratio is closer to what is shown in movie theaters and on letterboxed DVDs. Think wider. On a 4:3 set, you'll see black rectangular bars at the top and bottom of your screen, as you can see by the second image on the right, taken from an HD version of the same newscast.

Now here's where it gets a little mind-boggling for owners of old TV sets doing the digital upgrade. When the image is in letterbox setting, or 16:9 mode, the fields of black are on each side of the picture for shows in the standard format. This works out well for owners of newer widescreen TVs. Same height, just a slightly squarish image when showing standard definition programming. But for older sets, this makes for a rather strange image when in letterbox mode, in which the 4:3 picture has a rather chunky black frame on all sides. One weird example was a local commercial cut-in, a trailer for the upcoming widescreen flick Speed Racer, which showed a tiny, scrunched ultra-widescreen image surrounded by a large field of black (as shown in the third image). Not to worry. Some of the boxes, including the Insignia, Zenith and others, have a 'zoom' button that corrects this manually, but it requires a little button pushing. Be sure the box you purchase has this. This glitch has not gone unnoticed. NBC and the Tribune Company are among the broadcasters working on their own software fix for this stuff, and this "postage stamp" effect should be resolved as more individual stations correct this.

This ongoing lead-up time to next February is when we'll see many of the kinks of DTV ironed out. Transmission issues will also likely be fixed, enabling coverage consistent with the soon-to-be previous analog signals. Over the remaining months, broadcast engineers will be making final adjustments for their digital makeover, with some even shutting down their analog signals early (a few already have) in anticipation of the switch. Many stations will be moving to different channel allocations, but through the magic of digital mapping will still appear on 'virtual channels' (this is one part that I will not get into here, lest I really confuse all of you).

So far, the heavily-promoted DTV converter box program surprisingly seems to be working. Over 10 million vouchers have been requested to cover over 5 million households in the first few months of the program, and no doubt more are on the way. The boxes themselves have been flying off the shelves, likely rivaling the success of the much ballyhooed (and cool as hell) Nintendo Wii.

So, with less than ten months to go before the dawning of the new digital area, being prepared for the switch will ensure that people who watch TV the old fashioned way will continue to do so. It will also usher in a new experience for television viewers, with clearer pictures, sound and content. I, for one, extend a hearty welcome our new DTV overlords.

Converter box vouchers, good for $40 off any approved unit, can be requested at dtv2009.gov.

Have any of you bought a DTV converter box yet? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


FSL said...

Amen about the cable channels, the price you pay and what you get for it.

Might I recommend people consider applying rebates toward a Tivo? Tivo can receive the digital channels (as well as cable or fibre optics, but not satellite). And the big plus is you are not tied to stations' schedules.

I would like to see stations do more with their sub-channels. CBS, CW and Fox don't even have them here. ABC and NBC have full time weather plus ABC has a third sub-channel that re-runs weekend local public service programs over and over. The public stations are making that attempt with kids' channel, arts channel and government channel. Unfortunately, they don't duplicate the schedules on the regular analog channel and on the main HD channel so many of the shows I like aren't available here in HD (even though the announcement at the beginning says the show is being shown in HD).

Back to liberal talk: If somebody started running liberal talk on their HD radio FM sub-channels, I might actually see that as a reason to buy one.

ltr said...

Some of the newer DVD recorders actually have digital tuning features, making it work kinda like a VCR. The rebate vouchers won't work on them, though, and they're a bit pricey. Is Tivo still charging a monthly fee?

In addition, many network shows are available for streaming via their network's website and other places. I caught up with the late, lamented CBS show "Jericho" this way, and will eventually brush up with missed seasons of "24."

While multicasting may be attractive to stations as added streams of potential advertising revenue, one drawback to the presence of subchannels is that they take away bandwidth that could be applied to HD. The more subchannels, the less space for good hi-def programming. FOX and ABC, however, don't run full HD anyway (720p compared to the optimal 1080p that most of the others run). Usually, only the people with really big screens will notice, and they probably don't even realize the difference.

As for subchannels, NBC does their weather thing, offering Weather Plus to many of their affiliates, and stations owned by ABC stations and others use AccuWeather. This, however, is not sent out by ABC - AccuWeather syndicates their TV package independently. Independently-owned ABC affiliates can do whatever they want. If ABC were smart (and judging by that horrible debate a few weeks back, I doubt it), they would take their struggling news channel, ABC News Now, which is currently only available on some cable digital tiers, satellite services and via web streaming, and make it available to affiliates for subchannel use (as they did briefly in 2004). The affiliates can then also slot in hourly local news briefs (ABC affiliate KSTP in Minneapolis-St. Paul already dedicates their sidechannel to replays of their local newscasts). While NBC has a corner on weather (they are rumored to be in talks to buy the Weather Channel), ABC could do likewise with news on DTV. It may even be a way of becoming competitive with CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News, which are currently crowding ABC out of more desirable cable real estate. Expanding to subchannels could give them a way on to more cable systems. With multicasting, they can get in where their cable and satellite-only counterparts can't. As it stands, the individual stations that are multicasting are doing their own thing (like RTN and other networks).

Some stations throttle their bandwidth allocation by suspending subchannels during times when the main station broadcasts high-bitrate HD. Public stations in a few markets are doing this.

As I mentioned, CBS does make occasional use of subchannels for sports. My local CBS outlet aired three NCAA basketball games simultaneously last month. FOX could do it with baseball, or, if the heavens are shining on us, NFL games (though Direct TV may not like that, and the NFL is stubborn with their content). One can dream, though.

You bring up a good point about public stations. In my town, as well as a few others, the DTV feeds on the local non-coms are different than the analog feed. A bit frustrating, since one of my PBS stations airs a full evening news block not seen on digital (as well as classic movies on weekends). They vowed that this would change once the analog shuts off, and things will return somewhat to normal. Public stations just have a ridiculous amount of content available, and does some of the best HD in the business. They are very aggressive on the DTV front.

While DTV is on the rise (though we really don't have a choice), HD Radio is stagnant. I don't even see it surviving longterm. Ibiquity has done a terrible job of getting it on the marketplace and fostering its growth. The available receivers are cumbersome and rather useless. They seem to be more concerned about licensing fees and royalties than nurturing it. However, there is a station in Wyoming that airs the AAR feed on one of their FM subchannels. But don't look for this trend to grow. They opted for this in Sheridan, WY because there is absolutely no chance of getting an OTA affiliate there. They did turn down Clear Channel's offer to air on an HD subchannel in San Diego (as did Ed Schultz), since they're trying to get a new affiliate in the market. Perhaps KLSD should reconsider its recent format flip, since their new sports format has since dropped them off the ratings chart altogether.

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