Best Buy: $10 per Inch for 50″ LCD

This is a price that I’m more used to seeing for a plasma screen than an LCD, but Best Buy is currently offering a 50″ LCD HDTV for $500. Now, I’ll grant you that it is an Insignia model, which is their house brand. And it is not a top-of-the-line set in terms of features; it’s a standard 60Hz set with three HDMI inputs but nothing fancy such as Internet connectivity or 3DTV support.

All the same, at $10 a diagonal inch, this is a pretty impressive price point. I have not tested this specific model, but I have seen some good quality Insignia models on the showroom shelves. If you’re in the market for a new set, this could be a bargain that is hard to pass up. (And keep in mind that you can make it a “Smart TV” by adding a network media player for $100 or less, such as one of the Roku boxes or the new Vizio Google TV box.)

It looks like this summer, as predicted, could be an excellent time to find some bargains on big HDTVs, so keep an eye out for deals.

More U.S. Households Rely on TV Broadcasts

In a recent letter to the FCC (as reported by TV Technology), head of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Gordon Smith cited new figures about over-the-air television in the U.S. in support of his statement about the FCC auction of part of the TV radio signal spectrum.

According to his statement, the portion of U.S. television households that rely solely on free broadcasts has grown to almost 18%. In a separate blog post, Smith mentions a study by GfK Media, nearly 7 million more viewers dropped their subscription services bringing the total who watch over-the-air exclusively has risen to more than 20 million.

If the subscription services are losing customers, it is probably due to a combination of cost-cutting by consumers and a switch to online-streaming sources over broadband Internet connections. It may be impossible to separate the two, but I expect that tight finances is probably the larger factor.

Whatever the reason, we cannot ignore the need for broadcast television for a significant portion of the population. Any reform of the free over-the-air system and reassignment of spectrum is going to have to preserve these services for those who cannot afford or choose not to pay for access to the information that these broadcasters provide.

Google TV: Round 2

Google TV is back. After an abortive first attempt two years ago, the second generation is getting close to shipping. Both Sony and Vizio have announced network media players based on the Google software, and LG has a new LCD HDTV with the feature.

Google TV is intended to bridge the traditional subscription television and over-the-air broadcasts with the growing choices available on the Internet. For example, you should be able to search for a specific movie, and the system will return listings from your broadcast choices as well as options for watching it online with streaming video.

Google also plans to expand the service’s Google Play options later this summer, offering new choices in addition to the 100,000 television episodes and movies that are already available.

With list prices of $100 to $200, the network media players from Vizio and Sony can instantly add next-gen smarts to any television. A simple upgrade like this may be enough for many consumers to decide to stick with their existing television a bit longer.

Sony Blu-ray Player for $40

Blu-ray has taken a long time to catch up with DVD, and as I continue to point out, the disc business appears to be in decline. Is if possible tht Blu-ray could catch up this late in the race?

It could if the premium between it and standard DVD players (which is “good enough” for the majority of consumers) dropped to something approaching “zero.” And apparently now it has.

Sony BDP-BX18 Blu-ray player available on eBay

A seller on eBay is offering refurbished Sony Blu-ray players for $40. I have not tested this model, so I can’t tell you if it’s any good or not, but it appears that the seller has sold many hundreds of them. And it’s no “transportation special” stripped-down model, either. It has Sony Bravia Internet video support and a wired Ethernet connection, a front panel USB port, and an HDMI connector. According to the product description, it was “originally purchased from a major retail store and returned.”

New Blu-ray players still cost more than DVD players, but with deals like this showing up, I’d expect the price differential to soon become meaningless.

Sony and Panasonic: New Entrants in OLED TV Race

This story has me scratching my head a bit; Sony and Panasonic will partner in developing OLED TVs. According to the press release, the two companies will pool their “core and printing technologies” to develop a “printing method-based next-generation OLED technology.” Perhaps the most puzzling part is that they “aim to establish mass-production technology during 2013.”

Wow! This strikes me as two drowning swimmers throwing each other cement life rings. Both companies have gone through very public financial difficulties. Sony has failed to catch any of the recent technology waves, and is awash in red ink. They have lost their traditional dominance in the television and personal media markets, and their PlayStation platform may get wiped out by Microsoft’s Xbox.

Panasonic is in no better shape. The company doubled down on plasma technology when flat panels started to take off, and consumers responded by choosing to pay a premium for brighter LCD models. It is losing billions of dollars annually, as the plasma TV market share continues to dwindle.

In general, these two Japanese electronic giants have spent the last decade watching the Korean and Chinese companies (both mainland and Taiwan) steadily eat their lunch (and their breakfast and their dinner for that matter).

Yes, Panasonic has some enormous production capacity that it is not using. Yes, Sony was out early with an OLED television (that was not high-definition and terrifyingly expensive and didn’t sell many units at all, but who’s counting?) Both companies do have a history of developing innovative technologies, however, and it’s possible that they could come up with a winner. If they can produce successful OLED TVs using printing methods instead of the less efficient and slower vacuum deposition batch methods currently in use, it could be that they could lower production costs enough to steal a march on LG and Samsung, and compete on cost sooner with the incumbent LCD models.

But can they accomplish this by next year? That seems to be a very tall order, given the early stages of development for metal oxide backplanes and OLED materials (especially the problematic blue emitters). It’s hard to see just how they might manage to pull this off.

Strawberries and Cream Over the Top

There is one type of content that makes “television” the most compelling entertainment media available: live sports. If streaming video — also known as “over the top” — is going to make serious inroads into the traditional linear television broadcasting markets, it will need to offer “better-than-television” coverage. And we’ve already seen many experiments that are making significant progress in this direction.

For example, the Olympics in China had more than 2,000 hours of coverage available online, which was significantly more than was broadcast on the several networks that provided programming in this country. It was a great way to follow some of the less-popular events (including my personal favorite, sailing, which rarely gets any network screen time), even though much of the coverage was presented without commentary.

Now you can follow another major sporting event online. Livestream is partnering with Wimbledon to provide online coverage of this famous tennis tournament. The broadcasts are free and will include live coverage of major matches. The high definition programming will also include player interviews, press conferences, and highlights. The Wimbledom.com site will offer the live stream, as well as an archive of clips.

This is an exciting development, and provides sports fans one more reason to connect a browser-capable device to their big screen. It also exposes one more crack in the wall that used to be the broadcast networks’ impenetrable barrier to effective competition. Online streaming video can only continue to grow more popular as a result of developments like this.

Supreme Court Throws Out FOX and ABC Sanctions

The FCC suffered a bit of an “enforcement malfunction” yesterday when the Supreme Court threw out sanctions against ABC and FOX. Disney had been hit with a $1.2 million penalty for nudity in an “NYPD Blue” episode on ABC, while FOX was warned about expletives that were uttered on the air during two live award show broadcasts.

The Supreme Court decision did not address the overall issue concerning the constitionality of the FCC’s indecency rules. Instead, it took a much more narrow view, ruling that the agency did not give the networks fair warning about the “fleeting expletive” rules, which were announced after the incidents in question.

The decision may also lead to the elimination of the FCC’s half-million dollar fine against NBC for the infamous Janet Jackson halftime incident at the SuperBowl.

The decision does put a nick in the FCC’s enforcement sword, though it might have been worse had the Court extended the judgment to consider the First Ammendment free speech issues that could be drawn into the discussion. For now, it appears that broadcast television will continue to be held to higher standards of “decency” than content on channels that are only available on subscription services such as cable and satellite.

I suspect that this not the last we hear of this argument, however. The FCC has a backlog of 1.5 million complaints about indecent content in broadcasts, and is mandated by Congress to protect young viewers from inappropriate content. On the other hand, the broadcast networks chafe at facing enforcement actions that do not apply to the cable channels. So you can expect that this issue will likely come before the Supreme Court again before long.

You may have noticed a new look to the HDTV Almanac. This is way overdue, but was prompted by an upgrade to a new version of the WordPress software that caused our ancient files to format incorrectly. We’ve still got some tweaks to work out, so please ignore the extra noise and sawdust while we complete the remodelling. And if you have any questions or comments, feel free to write to me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com.

Verizon Jacks Up the Speed

Verizon’s FiOS service has become very popular with some users for its outstanding broadband service speeds. It doesn’t seem that long ago that getting a couple Mbps over DSL was amazing; now FiOS service starts at 15 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload. And Verizon has now raised the ante.

Recognizing that broadband households are using more and more data from the Internet, Verizon has introduced “FiOS Quantum” service. This covers four new options: 50/25, 75/35, 150/65 and 300/65. (The first number is the download speed in Mbps, and the second number is the upload speed.) These rates are intended to support simultaneous streaming of video content from the Internet to multiple devices in the home at the same time. (Netflix recommends at least 3 Mbps download speeds for DVD quality, and 5 Mbps for HD quality.) It also will speed the downloading of content; Verizon estimates that you’ll be able to download a full-length DVD-quality move in about 20 seconds at the top speed of 300 Mbps, which can also suck down a full HD movie in a little over two minutes.

Triple-play bundles with the 50/25 service will start at $110, which is just $10 more than the starting price for triple-play bundles with 15/5 service. That’s more than triple the download speed, which could be attractive for many households.

Neither the press release nor the Verizon website makes any mention of monthly data caps, so presumably you get unlimited use at these speeds (unlike the company’s plans to put limits on wireless data transfers for their mobile phones and other devices).

This is a smart move for Verizon; it helps put some open water between them and their cable company competitors in terms of top speeds offered. It also sets up the FiOS service as the go-to choice for a fat data pipe into the home. It may also signal that Verizon recognizes that future success may lie in delivering data on-demand to consumers, as opposed to the linear broadcast of content that we still call “television.”

Online Video Gets More Product Placements

If you’re a long-time reader of the HDTV Almanac, you know that one of my favorite hobbyhorses to ride is the question of “who is going to pay for the video content?” Advertisers have long been aware that we’re skipping their commercials with our DVRs, but they were at a loss about what to do instead. Some of them are smelling the french roast, however; Nike has cut its television commercial budget by 30%. But if the advertisers leave television, how with the content creators get paid?

I’ve long been a fan of product placement. The practice of putting products in television episodes and movies is nothing new; it has been around much longer than Jack Lord’s big black Mercury on “Hawaii Five-O”. (And who can forget the Reese’s Pieces coup when Mars turned down the chance to have M&Ms appear in the movie “E.T.”?) Product placement is alive and well in both television and movies, as witnessed by the fact that just about every laptop you see on screen has the glowing Apple logo in plain sight.

Now it looks as though product placement is coming on strong for streaming video as well. With online services now producing their own content, they too have the opportunity to make deals to include products in the scenes. An article in Online Media Daily includes an interview with YouTube’s Suzie Reider, head of industry development. According to Reider, advertisers realize that a growing share of their audience is online.

For example, a company called Alphabird is going to produce a new comedy about a home handyman, and it will serve as a vehicle for product placements ranging from tools to appliances. The article doesn’t mention what portion of the production costs will be covered by these deals, but it is interesting that the show is being built from the ground up, so to speak, with product placements in mind. Instead of the mythical Binford Tools of “Home Improvement,” we can expect to see familiar brands in these episodes.

How will consumers react? Well, it’s been going on for a long time already, so I expect we’re more or less used to it by now. It’s only when it’s done with a heavy hand that it becomes objectionable, such as a long shot of a General Motors car driving down a driveway while the cast of “The Mentalist” does some voiceover dialog. (Am I the only one who gets bugged by that? If you turn the sound off, the shot is indistinguishable from a stand-alone commercial.)

Done right, product placement subtly just makes you want to get a pair of those jeans that the star is wearing, or drink that brand of beer, or whatever. I believe that it is likely to be a major part of production funding going forward.

Sharp Ships 90″ LCD HDTV

Imagine a television that is more than six and a half feet wide. Imagine that you could have one in your living room now if you want it. It’s not a pipedream; it’s the Sharp LC-90LE745U 90″ LCD HDTV, and the company announced yesterday that it is available now from select retailers in the U.S.

The mammoth screen has a 90″ diagonal measurement, and relies on a full matrix of white LEDs for its backlight to enable selective dimming for increased dynamic contrast. It tips the scales at a hefty 141 pounds (150 with the stand) so plan on getting some help when you go to mount it. It supports 3DTV, and comes with a pair of active glasses. It also is a Smart TV, but it is interesting to note that the screen does not use Sharp’s four-color-pixel Quattron technology. You might expect it to be a power hog, but it’s rated at just 138 watts when operating, which is less than many 52″  models that are about one-quarter the size.

This is a dramatic demonstration of Sharp’s new strategy, in which it will focus only on LCD TVs 60″ and larger. The idea is that it will leave the lower end of the market to its competitors, where they can slug it out among themselves. This makes sense in that Sharp is the only one with a Gen 10 LCD panel fab, which should mean that they can make these larger sizes more efficiently. The question is whether the worldwide market for these giant screens is large enough to make the play work.

The announced price for the LC-90LE745U is $10,999, but is expect to sell for closer to $10,000. This creates an interesting dilemna for those with five figures of disposable income to spend on a single television; do you get one of the new 55″ OLEDs from LG or Samsung, or do you go for a screen nearly four times that size with the LCD from Sharp? It’s not a decision that I expect to have to make, but it does make for an interesting “what if” question.