DTV Transition Starts, World Doesn’t End

Contrary to the expectations of Congress and the FCC, the first phase of the DTV transition took place without major incident. Some 23% of American TV stations stopped sending out analog signals Tuesday at midnight, and only 28,000 calls came into the centers the FCC and the cable and satellite providers have established for transition help. The biggest category of call, close to half of all calls, was from people unable to pick up the digital broadcasts at all, or picking them up with very poor quality. A significant number didn’t know how to setup their converter boxes, or didn’t realize that the converter boxes have to scan for channels.

These numbers support a suspicion I’ve had for a while now, that the emphasis on converter boxes is misplaced. The problem that most people are going to have is a complete inability to receive digital broadcasts at all, because they don’t have the right kind of antenna, the antenna isn’t oriented properly, or because they live in the wrong place. Many stations are moving transmitter locations to alter service areas, and won’t be serving some traditional customers any more. Others are reducing power, sometimes quite substantially. Digital broadcasts are more robust, so some reduction in power is quite sensible. But I suspect that over-the-air delivery of TV is such a small percentage of the overall market – well below 20%, and in some areas less than 10% – that it doesn’t make financial sense for stations to invest heavily in high power transmitters.

The timing of the transition was very bad for this reason. A substantial number of OTA TV viewers are doing to need upgrades to roof-mounted antennas, and in many cases they’re going to need multiple antennas pointing in different directions. Getting up on a roof in February is not a pleasant experience in much of America, so a May or June transition date would have been much more sensible. In any event, it’s a good time to buy stock in antenna companies.

I’ve been doing some experiments with roof-mounted antennas that I’ll be reporting on shortly. So far, I can only get 5 stations where I live, and four broadcast in Spanish. Perhaps the FCC needs a budget for bilingual education as well as for converter boxes and antennas.

TiVo rolling out YouTube support

Another sign of the ongoing convergence is TiVo new software enabling Series 3 and HD customers to play YouTube directly from TiVo in the latest software:

As I’d suspected, TiVo support for YouTube is indeed hidden within the 9.4 software update. Series 3 and TiVo HD subscribers should start seeing the application show up as early as tomorrow (Thursday), though the rollout will be completed over the next few weeks. And in some form of meta-irony, I’ve shot a brief video of YouTube on TiVo… on YouTube.

Switched digital video and TCP remote control are also parts of this release. TiVo is evolving into a bit of a nano data center, albeit very limited one.

FCC-enabled Triple-Play Customer

After writing about triple-play and residential broadband for years, I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and try it out. I already had Internet access from Comcast, and I’ve taken out an order to add TV and phone service. The motivation wasn’t entirely economic, although it will save me a bundle for the first year. I’m currently getting TV from DirecTV and my phone from AT&T like a normal person, so the prices of these services will be cut in half and my Internet would have been $15 cheaper for a 50% higher cap, but I decided to go for the 16 Mb/s cap for a price that’s still lower than what I’ve been paying for a 4 Mb/s cap.

My primary motivation for dropping DirecTV was to get away from their crappy DVR. I don’t watch live TV at all, and haven’t since I got my first TiVo in 2002, but there’s no way I can tolerate DirecTV any more. They used to partner with TiVo for a nice unit that integrated two satellite tuners with the recorder, but they idiotically decided to cut their ties with TiVo and do their own thing a couple of years ago. The DirecTV box still doesn’t know what channels I get, and there’s no way I can tell it, so it tries to record baseball games on channels I don’t get and misses the ones I do. This is really unacceptable.

The only convenient way to record all the games played by the A’s is to do a keyword search for “Oakland A’s”, because the actual titles of the games are things like “Oakland A’s at Evil Anaheim Angels of Anaheim” or vice versa. So title search would require 58 entries on each of the four channels where A’s games appear (local OTA, Comcast Sports Net Bay Area 1, 2, or HD.) The keyword search for “Oakland A’s” tries to pick up games on other sports nets and national channels, which is worthless.

Although Comcast has a deal with TiVo and is testing a Comcast DVR with TiVo software, the feedback on the TiVo forums is that it doesn’t work very well, no doubt due to the crappy Motorola hardware platform it’s built on. Some day it will probably be fine, but it clearly sucks at this stage. Thanks to the FCC, cable companies are required to support CableCard, so I can use a true TiVo HD box on cable with the simple addition of a cable M-Card, as the story goes. So we have an odd case of Comcast gaining my TV business because of regulatory action on the cable front that doesn’t exist for satellite TV. DirecTV is not required to open their system to third-party DVRs, and they don’t. Don’t believe that the irony of this effect of cable regulation is lost on me.

The first hiccup came when I tried to activate TiVo service on my new DVR, which I bought from Amazon for $214.65 (it’s up to 263.47 already.) TiVo accounts are indexed by e-mail address, and because I already had a DirecTV TiVo, they wouldn’t let me login to their site with my e-mail address to active the new own-brand TiVo, which is pretty dumb. So I had to use an alternate e-mail address after a fruitless hour on the phone with CS. TiVo does some things exceptionally poorly.

I should have that all straightened out by the time the cable guy shows up, but I do have to ask him why he ran over Kevin Martin’s dog (*inside joke*.) More on that later.

Two Degrees of Douglas Adams

Richard Dawkins dedicated The God Delusion to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams introduced Dawkins to Lalla Ward, the former actress to whom Dawkins is now married. Adams and Ward knew each other from working together at Doctor Who, where Adams was a script editor and writer and Ward was the magic princess of the planet Atrios and the second incarnation of Time Lord Romana.

Adams also co-wrote a sketch for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (episode 42, A Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the Liberal Party.) Go forth and impress others with your grasp of trivia.

For extra credit, Ward was briefly married to Doctor Who number four Tom Baker, hence Doctor Who and Dawkins are spiritually connected three different ways.

This is wrong

What are these wankers thinking?

Comedian Catherine Tate is to play Doctor Who’s new companion, reprising her role from the 2006 Christmas special, the BBC has announced.

She will join David Tennant for the complete 13-week run of the new series of Doctor Who, which is due to begin filming in Cardiff later this month.

What an outrage. Am I bovvered? Damn right.

Spreading money

Viacom sues Google over YouTube for a cool billion bucks and Jeff Jarvis is predictably upset:

I’ve been reading Viacom’s boneheaded $1 billion complaint against YouTube. Viacom complains about YouTube but, in truth, they’re complaining about their own viewers. They whine about theft but, in fact, they’re whining about recommendation, about their audience finding them more audience. Viacom is trying, singlehandedly, to turn the TV industry into the music industry. They are trying to spread stupid.

Let me suggest another point of view. I believe Viacom is upset over the fact that the TV programming they produce has been appropriated by another company for the purpose of substituting the other company’s ads for Viacom’s. Viacom depends on ad sales to cover the costs of production and delivery of their programming, and when their shows end up on YouTube, Google makes all the money for the ads they sell alongside Viacom’s programming. Presumably, if Google were willing to equitably share their ad revenues with Viacom this case would never have done to court.

So who’s entitled to this ad revenue, Google or Viacom? And who’s “spreading stupid” here?

AT&T learing Google’s lesson

Just as Google is finally fessing up that video can kill the Internet, AT&T is learning a similar lesson (WSJ subs only):

AT&T’s big bet on using Internet technology to vault ahead of rival cable operators in the television-distribution business is beginning to look more like a long shot.

The telecom giant says it has rolled out its so-called U-verse service in 11 cities. But that’s four fewer than promised, and the technology seems to remain mostly in the trial phase. AT&T executives acknowledge they aren’t fully marketing U-verse because the service can’t yet handle a surge of customers. AT&T counted just 3,000 customers at the end of the fourth quarter, unchanged from three months earlier.

Meanwhile, AT&T executives last month admitted for the first time that there were problems with the software for U-verse provided by Microsoft, its primary vendor on the project. That’s a concern not just for AT&T, but for telecom companies world-wide that bought Microsoft technology to run TV services using Internet protocol, or IP, to transmit signals.

It isn’t clear how serious the problems are because AT&T and Microsoft executives won’t discuss them. An AT&T spokesman attempted to play down the situation, calling it “a little fine tuning.” A Microsoft spokesman said the technology was “on track.”

But the delays plaguing U-verse have fed criticism that AT&T and Microsoft overreached, trying to get more out of Internet technology than it’s capable of delivering at this time. The skeptics include vendors, former employees and competitors. Surprisingly, one of the challenges they believe has tripped up AT&T is something the earliest TV sets could do easily: switch channels instantaneously.

Partnering with MS was a big mistake, and the technical approach is a big leap. Unlike Verizon, which runs fiber to the home with most of the channels in simultaneously moving in multicast streams, the U-verse system is video-on-demand over copper wire with a handful of channels to each home (like 4). So they need massive numbers of servers and with channel-changing at the central office. I wrote a patent application once for a rapid channel-changing system on a network like this, and I can tell you it’s a hard problem (though not an insoluble one, heh.) The basic problem is that you need to buffer up some data before you start displaying in order to have jitter protection, and the time it takes to fill that buffer causes delay in channel changing. MS demonstrated a fast channel-changing system at CES a year ago, but making something like that work on a real network is a very different problem from making it work in a demo.

The Internet is great for personalized programming, and not so great for huge amounts of bulk data. AT&T better get a better partner immediately and some better wires down the road if they’re ever going to get this thing to sing.