On March 15, 2005, the Consumer Electronics Association (ce.org) hosted a one-day conference at the Washington Convention Center in Washington DC. The name of the annual conference is HDTV Summit: The Analog Switchoff. I attended this show last year, so it was interesting to see how things have changed, and how they haven't.
Gary Shapiro, CEO of CEA, said in his introduction that it is time to celebrate. Then, as usual, he gave a lot of misleading statistics that overstated the current state of HDTV adoption. He said that 87% of all DTV products are HD, which can't possibly be true. He said that 20M sets will be sold this year, up from 7M sets sold last year. He said that this year for the first time, people will buy more digital sets than analog sets. But we didn't find out until later that the 20M includes 4:3 CRT sets that now include ATSC tuners because of the Digital Tuner Mandate.
Shapiro still believes in DCR (Digital Cable Ready) and he called on the Cable Industry to stop dragging its heels. Later it was reported that progress on 2-way Plug and Play is still slow, and there was no mention of a DVR Plug and Play. DCR makes no sense in its current form, but Shapiro is still pushing it.
Shapiro gave credit to the growing body of HDTV content and the support of the Networks as the reason for the growth of HDTV. But later we found that the truth is quite different:
People want Big Screen TV. They always have. But it wasn't practical in the past for most people because the sets were so huge. Now, with flat displays, Big Screen is possible. And with the rapid price drops, it is becoming affordable. So while the industry is selling lots of HDTV sets, most of them are not connected to HDTV programming. They are mostly being used to watch DVDs or SD programming.
Shapiro and others are calling for a Date Certain for the Analog Switchoff, believing that that will be the key to the success to HDTV. But I disagree. HDTV will be successful, but not for the reasons they think.
Prices are continuing to fall quickly. The LCD panel makers have been reinvesting aggressively, and may have overbuilt production capacity. This will push prices lower. The plasma makers are phasing out EDTV, even though EDTV sales are up. They anticipate new competition from LCD, so they are moving all production to HDTV in order to generate economies of scale to compete. The television market is very very competitive.
The problems of confusion have not improved much since last year. We heard stories of people who have HDTV sets and analog Cable who think they are watching HDTV. We heard about people with EDTV sets who think they are watching HDTV. FCC has a www.DTV.gov program with CEA, but it does not appear to be reaching people. There was a call for Broadcasters to devote some of their PSA (Public Service Announcement) time to promoting HDTV, but I think that would be in violation of their licenses.
Most broadcasters are not operating digitally at full power. Until they do, many tuners in their markets will fail to get a good signal. Also, most Cable operators are not passing the broadcasters' HDTV signal through at full quality. They are downrezzing or converting to analog. As a result of these actions, consumers are unable to see HD in markets that claim to have HD. It is amazing that the FCC's rules allow this kind of behavior. I hope the next Chairman of the FCC is more effective.
CEA has a website that is supposed to help people buy digital antennas: antennaweb.org. It asks questions like: Are there any buildings, steeples, towers, or other structures taller than four stories within four blocks of your location, airports within two miles of your location, and/or many nearby trees over 30 feet tall? It makes ATSC look like a huge step backwards compared to NTSC.
People just want Big Screen TV, and instead the industry is selling them HDTV EDTV DTV ATSC LCD DLP Plasma. It is amazing that they buy anything at all. We need to get better at understanding want consumers want. They want Big Screen TV and they want it to work: easy and simple.
Someone suggested a co-marketing scheme in which a cable or satellite company sells and installs the monitor with the STB and service. It is the ultimate in convenience for the customer, and they are assured of getting the best experience and no confusion.
HDTV's success is like hooking a fish in the gill. (Once when I was a boy my grandfather took me fishing with some of his friends. That day my hook snagged a fish in the gill. The men laughed, but I didn't care. I was very excited to have caught a fish. I didn't catch it the way you are supposed to, but it was the only fish we caught that day. The success of HDTV is like that.)
We were spoken to by four ranking members of Congress: Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada), and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona). They want Congress to set a firm, certain date for the Analog Switchoff, when all television broadcasting will be digital. They are proposing that the date will be December 31, 2006. Warning labels would be placed on EDTV and SDTV products.
The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) is fighting this. Their representative at the conference was not honest about their reasons. Other people were suggesting that the NAB was unpatriotic. This is a fight that NAB cannot win.
This year the Congress will be working on a rewrite of the Communications Act. That will be a very complicated piece of legislation, so they propose that the Switchoff bill will be separate so that it can be passed quickly. Hollywood is expecting to lose the Broadcast Flag legal challenge. They have already gone to Congress asking for Broadcast Flag legislation. This may be factored into new Communications Act.
The congressmen recommended that we lobby the Congress. They recommended that we use plain language, simple terms, and word pictures when we talk to the senators and representatives. They have two motivations for setting a date certain: It is thought that it will help assure the digital transition. But more importantly, it will allow the government to reclaim some of the television spectrum. Some of the spectrum will be used for Emergency Services. The rest will be auctioned. It is thought that the auction will produce $5B to $17B for the government. The recovered spectrum will be licensed for broadband wireless and mobile/pedestrian media services.
Only 15%-20% of families rely on broadcast, not having cable or satellite or IPTV. About half of those are low income and might not be able to afford a digital tuner set top box. There was a lot of talk about the government subsidizing these tuners. They think that half billion dollars would be small compared to the value of the spectrum recovered.