Reader Mail: The Future of Cable TV

I get a lot of email from readers, and occasionally I share our exchanges here. This week, I got a particularly interesting message about this week’s post about “Online Streaming Grows“:

You close with the statement that a cable or satellite TV service should be figuring out what to do when their current business falls apart.

There is one big hidden assumption that you seem to be overlooking here, namely the idea that all the users of these services have a fast enough Internet connection to be able to all be streaming at the same volume of TV watching.

I live in Southern California, just outside of LA, in what would otherwise be considered a fairly large community (125K people, growing >10%/year), and I am in the central, long built-up area of town. But the best Internet connection that I can buy would not support HD streaming to all the TVs in the house, what I am currently paying >$100/month for is only 1.5Mb down. People who are in more remote areas are in even worse shape.

The broadcast method of delivering the same content to many destinations is fantastically efficent and is unlikely to go away. Cable and Satellite providers do not have enough bandwidth to be able to provide each subscriber with enough bandwidth to have them all simultaneously streaming.

Having said all this, I’ve had a Tivo for over a decade, and I seldom watch live TV. When I do it’s typically to have something going in the background. I could see there being much heavier use of DVRs and having the more popular shows being broadcast once per day (instead of 2-10 times between repeats and different time zone slots) with the DVRs recording the shows the first time they air for viewing later. This would free up a significant chunk of the available broadcast bandwidth for ‘special requests’, which could get streamed out to everyone as well. Recording all of this stuff would be fairly inefficient, but drive sizes are getting large enough that it’s no longer impossible.

And here is my reply:

Thanks so much for sharing your comments. I think you’re right on target in many respects, but I also believe that your analysis and mine not only survive side-by-side, they are probably inevitable.

There are always remote outlier areas of just about any population, especially in the U.S. There are regions where terrestrial broadcast does not reach, for example. In some cases, those areas can be rather well-populated such as the valleys of Vermont. Terrestrial broadcast can’t reach these viewers, so alternative approaches have a window of opportunity, such as digital broadcast satellite (DBS).

Moving to the issue of Internet access, the same problem of sparse population and long distances can make it not cost-effective to build out higher capacity transmission systems. It is likely that it will be a long time — if ever — before it becomes feasible to provide high speed service to remote areas.

So far, we’re right in sync. But here’s how I see it going forward. I believe that “watching what I want, when I want it” will trump linear programming, and that other solutions will be offered to viewers with lower bandwidth. For example, they would simply create a queue of programming that they would like to watch (just as they do now with Netflix, Hulu, or TiVo), and the content would be trickled to temporary storage onsite. (Terabytes are amazingly cheap, and still getting cheaper. I saw a 2 TB external USB drive for $100.) You can move a show up in priority, and it will be ready to watch sooner; the system could even alert you when it is “ready” even though the download is not complete, and you can “chase” the show while the rest of it downloads.

This would have minimal impact on the viewing experience of the user, while delivering almost the same benefits that a high bandwidth subscriber would get. I think that this would be a much more likely scenario than trying to use the terrestrial broadcast system to deliver the content.

I believe that something like this is likely the best-use case for the existing cable infrastructure, and that with the exception of maybe a couple live channels, linear programming is likely to simply go away. Not tomorrow, not next year, but I think it’s the logical outcome of the current trajectory.

Thanks again for writing.

Did something I write make you go “Hmmm?” Please take a moment and share your thoughts by sending me an email at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com.

Reader Question: How to “Rescan”?

Q: I am at my wits end trying to find a site that will provide me with easy to understand instructions on how to do a rescan! Do you have any idea how I can find a source for this? Your site (after searching for an hour and fifteen minutes is the closest to anything I have found. I would greatly appreciate any info you could get to me.
Iver Beck

A: I can understand your frustration. The problem is that the steps required to perform a “rescan” are different for different tuners, so I can’t give you the specifics for your individual tuner. And you won’t find “rescan” on the tuner’s menu. That’s because when we say “rescan”, what we really should be saying is “scan again”. It may seem like a simple thing to some people, but you’re not alone in your confusion.

All you have to do is go to the menu for your TV or converter box, find the channel section, and if it gives you a choice between “scan” or “update”, choose “scan”. That will clear all the assigned channels and do a completely new search. That’s all a “rescan” is. It’s exactly the same thing you did when you first setup the TV or converter box.

Note that it is a good idea to rescan every month or so, as stations in your area may be making changes. Be sure to rescan after the digital broadcast transition deadline on June 12.

Reader Question: DVRs after the Transition

Q: The transition to digital broadcasts poses a problem for some people who record daytime shows on their VCRs to watch when they come home from work. I asked the salesman at Radio Shack about the two converter models they sell, and they do not have a timer feature to set up like a VCR.

I have seen ads online for cards that could handle this, though in what seems to be a makeshift fashion. I think that what I want is a Linux or Windows setup stripped down just to do TV and recording so that it can come up quickly. Do you have any ideas?

George Rose

A: I’m not certain that “stripped down” is necessarily the way to go, but most TV tuner cards now include software that will do the recording for you. Check out ATI and Happauge’s offerings in this area. Drop one of them in your computer, and you should be in business.

You also can buy computer cases that look like VCR or DVD players, so they fit well in your living room décor (or at least they don’t look like a computer sitting there). Windows XP Media Edition or Vista Ultimate can also give you some tools to manage your TV and other content.

There are a very few DVRs with digital tuners on the market, so you also have that as an option. (By the way, if you’ve never used a digital video recorder instead of a VCR, you’re in for a real treat.)

Reader Question: Scaling HDTV

Q: If a HDTV is limited to automatically displaying 720p what will be the picture results if the signal come at 1080 off air or cable?
Curt

A: Curt, when an image of one size is displayed on a screen with a different native resolution (number of pixels), then the image has to be scaled. If the image is smaller — a 720p image on a 1080p set — then the expanded parts of the picture have to be “invented”. The computer that is the HDTV’s controlling circuitry actually identifies features such as lines and objects in the image, and does its best to guess what dots to add to the expanded image in order to make it look good. It’s a tricky thing, and if done badly, the image quality can suffer. (This is what the “upconverting” DVD players do.)

If the image is larger than the screen — a 1080p image on a 720p set, as in your question — then the controller has to decide which part of the image to throw away in order to get it to fit on the screen. Again, it needs to preserve lines and the edges of objects, so this too is a complex process. And done badly, it’s even more likely to result in visible flaws in the image.

While many people may not be able to see the difference between a 1080p image and one scaled down to 720p, my personal preference is to not throw away any information for an image. That’s why — everything else being equal — I prefer 1080p as the native resolution for an HDTV. Whether you get a 720p or 1080p set, however, it’s very important to get one that scales well.

Reader Question: Black Bars on Wide Screen

Q: Is there anyway to eliminate the “side bars” from an HD picture ?
Jack Keefe

A: To paraphrase a former president, we could do that, but it would be wrong.

The “side bars” on an HD screen occur when you show standard definition content on a wide screen. The standard definition has a 4:3 aspect ratio — nearly square — while HD screens have a 16:9 wide format that is more like a movie theater screen.

When you show standard definition content (and most broadcast content is still standard definition), there are not enough pixels to fill the screen. So you if you view it at its normal dimensions, you will get a space to the left and right of the image. I recommend that you view it with the side bars showing.

You do have alternatives. You can choose a “wide mode” that will stretch the image so that it fills the screen. I don’t like this because people look short and fat and car wheels become ovals and it looks weird. You can also choose a “stretch mode” that will only stretch the edges of the image. I find this even more distracting, as objects seem to ooze from the edge of the screen. And if you have dialog with two characters facing each other, the images get just about surreal.

The third choice is to zoom; this enlarges the picture so that it fills the width of the screen. The problem here is that the top and bottom of the image are cut off, and I don’t like that.

As a result, I prefer to watch with the side bars.

The one exception is if I’m watching a standard definition show that is formatted for wide screen. “Law and Order” is a perfect example. Watching this on a wide screen shows black bars above, below, and beside the image. If you use the zoom mode on this programming, the original image will expand to fill the screen with no distortion and no cropping of the image. Aside from this one exception, I recommend that you leave your HDTV set to the Normal Mode setting.

Alfred

Reader Question: Rabbit Ears for Digital TV?

Q: I think I’ve heard you mention on The Personal Computer Show that rabbit ear owners would do well to replace their old antenna with a digital style model. Is that correct?
Richard Blum

A: Actually, Richard, my take on “rabbit ears” is slightly different. The problem is that analog signals can be received even when the signal has a lower strength; you get a snowy picture but you can still see it. Digital signals “fall off the shelf”, and you get a blank screen once the signal strength drops below a certain level. As a result, you may find that the rabbit ears — or whatever you use now to receive analog signas — that has worked okay may not work for digital. If this is the case, then you will need to go for an antenna system with more gain. Fortunately, there are all sorts of clever antennas — both for inside and outside your home — available at affordable prices that can do a better job of pulling in weak signals.

However, my strong position is that you first should try the antenna you alreay have, and only make a change if the existing setup doesn’t perform well enough.

Do you have questions about HDTVs? Write me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com and I’ll do my best to help.

Reader Question: How Green is My HDTV?

Q: Some weeks ago, I heard you mention thedifference in power consumption between LCD and plasma televisions on The Personal Computer Show. I have found that Crutchfield provides a comparison option which includes their own testing of TVs. When you have some time, could you compare the four 46″ models I have listed below, using Crutchfield.com. From what I can determine there does not seem to be a great deal of difference of power consumption in actual real world use. Thank you.
David Whitfield, Ohio

A: Thanks for the question, David. As with most technical issues, the generalities are sometimes contradicted by specific instances. This is a complex topic, but let me take a stab at it.

First and foremost, I commend Crutchfield for putting in the time and effort to measure power consumption for their televisions. A review of the four models you cite does show a plasma unit scoring slightly lower than an LCD unit using the Crutchfield measurements. Unfortunately, I cannot find any details on the Crutchfield Web site about how they got these results, so there has to be some question about how to interpret them.

The problem is that LCD and plasma screens consume power differently. Plasmas draw the most power when displaying a white screen at full brightness, because plasma power consumption is a direct result of how much light is needed to create the image on the screen. A picture of a snowy mountain top in daylight is going to draw much more power than a shot of a bad guy lurking in the shadows of a Gotham City alley. This is why it would be helpful to know how Crutchfield tested, because the images you put on the screen will affect the results.

LCDs, on the other hand, change their consumption little as the image changes. For most, they have fluorescent tubes as backlights, which remain on at full brightness whenever the set is on. The LCD layer blocks or transmits the light as needed to create the image, but the backlight stays on. The backlight is more efficient than the plasma panel, however, which is why the LCDs use less power than the plasma maximum.

And there’s one more factor that Crutchfield does not report, and that’s the brightness of the display. In general, LCDs are capable of producing a brighter image than a plasma. I expect that if the brightness on these LCDs was dialed back down to match the output of the plasmas, the power consumption advantage of the LCDs would show more clearly.

Note that some new LCD TVs are using LED backlights instead of fluorescent. Not only do these tend to give better color performance and consume a bit less power, they also make it possible to dim the backlight in darker regions of the image on the screen. This can cut power consumption in half.

Finally, it’s worth considering how significant the savings are. If you leave a single 100 watt light bulb burning while you watch TV instead of turning it off, you will wipe out the difference between the most power hungry model and the least on your list. Using Crutchfield’s estimate of 6 hours a day and $.10 per kilowatt hour, that difference is just $2 a month. So it may not be worth spending hundreds of dollars more just to get a set with lower power consumption.

Do you have questions about HDTVs? Write me at alfred@hdtvprofessor.com and I’ll do my best to help.

Reader Question: Digital TV Reception

Q: We recently purchased two digital converter boxes for our analog TVs. Although the pictures are generally very good, occasionally the picture freezes or distorts, as does the sound. This happens on both TVs. Each set is connected to its own antenna. Do I need a different type of antenna to receive the digital signal consistently or do you know what I need to do to fix this problem? Thank you for any help you can give.
L. H. OConnell

A: The likely cause of your problem is that your signal reception is marginal. It’s possible that this may improve when the February 17, 2009 changeover occurs, as some of the broadcasters may switch their digital broadcasts to transmitters with more power. But it’s probably a good idea to address the problem now, just to be safe.

With a weak analog signal, the image and sound are processed, but with static and “snow” and other distortion, sometimes to the point where the image is impossible to see. Digital signals are different; they “fall off the cliff” when they get too weak. You will get an excellent picture — as clear as a DVD — until the signal falls below the threshold, and then it will freeze, break up into large blocks, or just go altogether blank. Unfortunately, a weak analog signal can still be good enough to watch, but a weak digital signal won’t work.

What can you do about this? First, if you are using a directional antenna (such as one of those large, branching types typically mounted on the roof), you want to make sure that it’s pointed straight at the transmitter for the station you’re trying to receive. If the local stations are in different directions, you’ll need a rotor. If you go to www.antennaweb.org, you can find out the compass headings and distance for the stations in your area. It’s a free service, and very useful.

If this does not solve the problem, then you may need an antenna with more gain, which means that it captures more of the broadcast signal. www.antennaweb.org will give you some guidance about the type of antenna that may work best for your location.

The other step you can try is to get a signal amplifier. This connects between your antenna and your converter box, and will boost the signals received from your antenna. Note that inexpensive models tend not to be very effective, so you’ll probably need to get a good quality unit in order for it to help.

Reader Question: The Fate of TV Radios?

Q: I have not been able to find anyone who feels confident with their answer to this question and hope you can help me. I have three radios that receive audio only TV signals. Will I be able to receive audio only TV signals on these radios after the switch to digital? I talked with the FCC and they weren’t sure. It would be helpful to know if the TV bands on these radios will work after the transition to HDTV. Thanks so much!
Donita Jolly

A: Thanks for the question. Sadly, your radios will not work after the analog broadcast cutoff on February 17, 2009.

Analog broadcasts split the video and audio portions of the signal into two parts. The audio is broadcast separately, which is why you can hear the audio for Channel 6 at the low end of some FM radios. Your television tuner is then able to reconnect these two separate streams.

With digital broadcasts, the audio and video portions are both encoded into a single signal that are then processed by the digital tuner in your television.

The good news is that the digital converter boxes have audio output, and they are available for $50 or less. If you get the $40 government rebate, then you get the converter for $10 or less. You could plug in a pair of self-powered speakers to the audio output, and it will be able to give you the audio track for the local TV stations.

Reader Question: HDTV for the Road

Q: I can’t find anyone that can help me with this! I want to purchase an HDTV for use in a tractor trailer. I drive cross country. I’m trying to find something in the 15″ to 20″ range that will stand up to the nation’s rough roads. I’d prefer an AC/DC model, but I can use an inverter if need be. There are at least two problems. (1.) Temperatures: When the truck sits in the winter time it can get below freezing in the cab. When the truck sits in the summer it can get real hot inside. (2.) Rough Roads: Trucks don’t exactly ride like cars. They do a lot of bouncing around. The TV set would only be used while sitting still. It would never be turned on at these very cold or hot temperatures. It could be brought up to room temperature for several hours before being turned on. Several manufacturers have told me their LCD sets won’t hold up to all of this. What about plasma? CRT would probably be the best, but I can’t find one. Can you help?
Jeff Dressel

A: Plasma and CRT are not practical choices. You won’t find plasma this small, and the 30″ to 40″ models are not likely to be high definition anyway. CRTs will be too bulky and heavy. Any HDTV under 20″ will almost certainly be an LCD. Fortunately, LCDs do well with 12 volt DC power, so you should be able to find a solution that does not require an inverter.

I’m surprised that the LCD manufacturers said that LCD can’t be used for such an application. It seems that every minivan rolling off the Detroit lines these days has one or two LCD panels for rear passenger entertainment, and all GPS displays use LCD panels. At face value, this should eliminate any concern about temperature or vibration.

If all you want to do is watch DVDs, then I suggest you look into the aftermarket DVD players that you can find at any automotive parts retailer. If you want something with a tuner so that you can get local television over the air with an antenna, then I’d recommend that you look into the many LCD HDTVs that are available for marine applications. These are designed to handle temperature and vibration conditions well beyond what I expect your rig encounters. They will probably cost a bit more than an equivalent model designed for home use, but it will come with 12 volt DC power support and a ruggedized housing.

Trying to find the right HDTV for your train, plane, automobile, or home? Get Professor Poor’s Guide to Buying HDTV, now available in paperback from Amazon or other fine booksellers.