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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

So you Want to Be an MVPD

I don’t get it.  Definition of a television picture gets higher and higher.  Yet the FCC’s jurisdiction gets more and more fuzzy.

The latest is the latest inquiry into what constitutes a MVPD (multichannel video programming distributor).  Listen up!  This is important.

You’ve probably visited a currently-defined MVPD in the last few hours.  At least if you watched a program on cable or satellite or telco-delivered system.  Right.  These guys distribute video programming across multi[ple] channels.  Hence the acronym.

However, the commission now wants to take a broader view of MVPDs – from a regulatory standpoint.  Translation:  we want to regulate those emerging services which slowly are becoming MVPDs.  So, who’s that?  Well, start with Hulu and similar services.  Then toss in Youtube.  And, eventually, as is usually the case with regulation, every other form of video service that offers more than one (operative word being multiple in the acronym) channel.

So, what’s the big deal?  None, I suppose.  Oh. Wait.  Must-carry rules and retransmission consent agreements are an everyday part of MVPDs.  Let’s throw those on the backs of online distributors.  After all, copyright laws aren’t enough.  And so-called spectrum fees or other regulatory fees?  Why sure, if they’re going to be regulated, they need to pay for that regulation.

But it gets more insidious than that.  Here are some random insidiousities to consider.  (Yes, I know that’s not exactly a word.)
·     It opens a door for yet another tax on these smaller operations
·     It can subject them to content regulation
·    It can force them to begin captioning much of their fare (think I’m kidding Check out Broadcast Engineering, Volume 54, Number 5, May 2012, page 42.)  No.   It’s not required of Hulu yet…but if they become an MVPD, who knows?
·     EAS anyone?  Should all MVPDs be bound by FEMA and FCC rules for EAS?  In a  way, it’s a good thing – if you’re watching some idiot trying to jump 50 oil drums with a garbage truck on Youtube and there’s a chlorine leak somewhere in the county, don’t you want to know?

If we look back, we can trace the steps from cable being limited in the number of channels it carried.  Then it was forced to expand. Then local origination was forbidden.  Oh, then, it was mandatory…and along with it, public access channels.

We went through must-carry…and the leapfrogging fight.  At each turn, it seems, there was a flip-flop, or if not, a decision that said that what had been ordered in the past was radically wrong – even though the industry had operated fairly well during that time.

Now – flash forward.  Not too far.  It’s a time when there are no more “networks” or “channels.”  Long time, you think?  Remember that networks exist[ed] to distribute programming.  Broadcast networks were forbidden from becoming MVPDs.  They only had one feed.  They couldn’t provide multiple sets of programming at the same time.  If you doubt that, give NBC a call and ask them what happened to their Blue Network.

As networks evolved, they became brands.  Some, like DuMont, went the way of Peak Toothpaste.  Others survived and morphed – supported by O&O stations which provided channels.  These were specific, assigned groups of frequencies that standardized television transmission and reception in the US.  And as the O&O’s grew so did affiliates who took the networks’ feeds at least part of the day in exchange for compensation paid them for carrying their network’s commercials.  As they grew, the O&O’s and the affiliates became brands in and of themselves. 

We gradually became accustomed to seeking out specific content on a given network by going to the channel distributing it locally.  Cool.  If you want to continue living in the 20th century.  But not na’more.  We do find content by way of networks.  But we also find it through hundreds of other sources on the web, in the cloud or, today, via VOD on cable, quasi-VOD on satellite, heck, even RedBox can be considered a distribution channel. 

And as these hundreds of channels grow in popularity, the call for a network – in the classic sense – is diminished.  And channels – as in TV or cable channels – well, who cares.  You’ve heard me say it before – nobody cares what kind of car delivers their pizza.  It’s the pizza.  And, similarly, few care about how the content gets to them.  It’s the content itself.  Yeah, you want me to trot out the “Content is King” bromide.  Well, I won’t.  Uh oh. I just…well, moving on.

People are proving that they can find good content.  Kids are best at it.  The car-keys set is almost as good.  Frankly, we’re all getting better at it.  Good thing.  The days of getting 125 GRP’s to promote a program on air are gone.  “Back then” you could burn those off with a few shared :30’s and some voice-over-crawl announcements.  Not anymore.  Networks are finding it harder and harder to promote their programs.  Channels find it increasingly difficult to promote and protect their brand…because it IS about the content now, and not about the channel.

Now, please take all of the last few paragraphs and use it to frame the concept of MVPDs.  Just as audio streaming and computer audio recording and editing is whittling away at the need for a label, so is the ability to do the same with video eliminating the need for channels and networks.  So if everyone can do it, how do you regulate everyone and require them to submit to new laws on distribution – or the old ones which are being applied in an archaic manner?  You can’t.

Where does it go from here?  You only have to think about it for a second before you realize that if you have the ability to tell someone about some new content, you have a good chance of sampling.  After all, isn’t that what a network or channel does with its promos?  If I can tell you about a new show, I have a fighting chance you’ll give it a shot.  And where’s the best place to do that?  “A witch.”  (Sorry, that’s the answer to an entirely different Monty Python question.)  The best place is the EPG – electronic program guide.

If I have control of that, I get to decide what you see when you go to it.  It won’t matter where it comes from.  You may make your choice to watch it based on who produced it or wrote it, or who’s starring in it, or whatever.  But, regardless, I have first shot at you with the EPG.

And there’s been an ongoing fight there – well over 10 years - but I’ll leave that for another installment.  If you want to read ahead, remember this suit? 

Meanwhile, grab some chips and salsa, sit back and watch the government try to thread this MVPD needle.  And if you have Slingbox® or a similar device, and you can have two people watching different programming on their laptops with it, ask yourself, “Am I an MVPD?”  Then, when the government comes a knockin’ at the door, tell ‘em, “We already got one.”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Maybe the Whole Broadcasting Business is for the Birds

At the moment, I’m a “towering” inferno.  But this isn’t about the movie, Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway aside. 

Instead, this is about the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) v. FCC, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Seems that the FCC now feels that maybe ABC was right that the commission isn’t allowing for public comment on new tower structures or proposed modifications to existing ones.  So now we have the study, Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the Antenna Structure Registration Program.  Bureaucracy at its best.

If I can bottom-line you, the commission has acceded to the ABC that too many birds are being killed by communications towers.  The FCC has said wow, we didn’t realize the numbers were like this and we haven’t listened closely enough.  We’ll do more.

The key to all of this is the name of the organization…American Bird Conservancy.  Their concern is the anthropogenic [their word] demise of birds.  And, if they say towers are killing birds, it must be true.

I have been dealing with broadcast towers in one way or another since picking blackberries at the WSAI “Larry, Curly & Moe” tower site in 1957.  As a focus group of one, I can recall two bird incidents, neither of them there.  One was a pretty-well decomposed large bird about 50 yards (if memory serves me at all) from the base of a tower in Arlington Heights, IL.  That was about 20 years ago and I have no explanation.  Could have flown into the tower, who knows.  The tower’s gone.  Maybe a bunch of Canada Geese took it down in anger.

The other was at the base of a 12 foot satellite dish, about 3 years ago.  However, the collection of feathers near the base was directly attributable to Cricket, the station cat.   She did everything but burp to prove her ownership of the situation – and the remains.

So, really, one case.  Total number of towers I’ve had direct, multiple encounters with:  estimated at 40, from 100 feet AGL to 50 feet above Sears (Willis) Tower. I recall a number of birds’ remains on the roof of the 89th floor there but those were attributable to them flying into the windows of the 90th floor. 

Around the more common 450-500 foot structures, I’ve seen only the one mentioned above.  Now, stack this up against the other methods by which birds are harmed or killed.  Yes, I understand, every life has value.  But we do put limits on it – or there’d be no automobiles.  We’d outlaw them because of the significant life hazard they present.

Now, if you take all of this into account and compare it to the other causes, you have to scratch your head.  Why are we not clearly marking windows so that birds don’t fly into them?  Or fining people for letting their cats run free.

In fact the URS Group, Inc. study demonstrates that towers pose less than a 0.3 percent danger to birds as opposed to – standby – 41.9 percent from cats like Cricket.  Another 41.9 percent (amazing that the number’s the same for both) are attributable to buildings.  (Radio World synopsis)  (The full-blown FCC release

Here’s my proposal:

• Outlaw Windex® and other glass cleaners
• All windows must use translucent rather than transparent glass
• Buildings over 7 stories high must have the word B-U-I-L-D-I-N-G spelled out vertically (one letter per window going down from the top) on each side of the building.  However, this may be altered to read “north side” when birds are flying south and “south side” when birds are flying north. I’m thinking they can read!  Then...

• All cats must have bells and, in addition, tail extensions consisting of small helium balloons tied to the tail through two feet of bright wide orange ribbon.  This will ensure that the ribbon is in the air, waving, as the cat stalks birds.
• All cats will be required to announce themselves with a “meow” of at least 110db at 1 meter.  Cats that cannot meet this loudness standard must be kept indoors
• All cats must be kept indoors during prime migratory seasons - and finally,

• All extremely high voltage power lines (responsible for 5.5 percent of bird casualties) must be coated with a repellent substance (hey, maybe it should smell like cats!) to prevent birds from lighting.
• Automobiles must be equipped with sensors which detect bird flight and employ an automatic avoidance system to protect the birds.  (Of course, when the system swerves to miss a pigeon and carries the car into a pedestrian, that’ll be another matter.)

Do all that, and I’ll gladly address the “estimated” 0.3 percent of bird tragedies supposedly brought about by towers.  By the way, if you followed the links, you saw that according to estimates, 0.3 percent is equal to 6.6 million avian miscreants.  That’s a lot of birds.  But if that’s only 0.3 percent, it means about 2.2 billion birds meet their maker by accident each year.  And of those, 921.8 million – OK, a billion – at the hands of the hands – or paws & jaws – of cats.

In case you think I’m being flip, cynical and a bit sarcastic, I have a hole card.  The American Bird Conversancy has received over a billion dollars in federal funding.  Hey, they brag about it.  Check it out.  That’s my money telling the commission that they didn’t get it right and I need to decrease that 0.3 percent.

If you’re planning a new tower after August of 2012, be ready to meet the rules. 

But there’s a better answer for broadcasters:  breed cats.  If we all had hundreds of cats, that’d drive the number of cat-related avian casualties sky high and, consequently, would result in a drop in the percentage of tower-related bird deaths.  Alternatively, build your next studio totally out of plate glass and keep it really clean.

I thought writing this would be cathartic.  But I’m still doing a burn.  Clients will be shelling out bucks for compliance studies to go along with the FAA, EPA, wetlands, and OSHA hoops that we jump through.

And for what?  Seems like a lot of money frittered away, especially if eight times as many birds are killed intentionally by hunters.  But I suppose it keeps the DC folk occupied, even though it appears wasteful. 

Now if you want to get your arms around all of the government waste associated with this, read the release (The-Final-PEA link above).  Then, at the end of the release, read all of the references cited, realizing that most of those were paid for with tax dollars, too.  There’s only one way to get through it all.  A little Wild Turkey.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Pass the Worcestershire - and my Low Def TV. You, Me, TV, and the FCC

Let me see…you promise me a huge thick steak.  But I have to buy a new grill to cook it.  I buy the grill.  Then you tell me that you only want me to have half a steak and also want me to let my neighbor put his half steak on my grill next to mine.

Kind of what happened last week when the FCC issued an unofficial announcement of its Report & Order regarding television broadcasters sharing channels.

Simply explained, broadcasters are being offered the opportunity to share their assigned channels for rewards to be named – someday.  In their words,
“…making a significant portion of spectrum currently used by the broadcast television service available for new uses. The Report and Order, in anticipation of a future incentive auction to address the nation’s growing demand for wireless broadband, allows multiple broadcast stations to elect to stream individual programming while sharing a single channel.

The new rules promote innovation and investment in mobile communications, and help ensure the United States keeps pace with the global wireless revolution. The rules also help preserve broadcast television as a healthy, viable medium. Specifically, the Report and Order establishes a framework for how two or more television licensees may voluntarily share a single six MHz channel in conjunction with the auction process…”

Just so we all understand – as much as possible given the available information – The commission is asking stations to give up part of their spectrum by sharing their 6 megahertz channel with others.  This is undefined except for a later statement, “…stations will need to retain at least one standard definition programming stream to meet the FCC’s requirement of providing an over-the-air video broadcast at no direct charge to viewers, they will have the flexibility of tailoring their channel sharing agreements to meet their individual programming and economic needs…”.  In other words, it’s not important how they share or how many share, as long as each can maintain one free over-the-air SD programming channel.

What’s wrong with this picture?Anyone remember the Communications Act of 1996?  Right.  It solidified the digital broadcast industry in the US.  It did so by forcing stations to move from analog to digital broadcasting over a period of time.  Yes, if you thought, “Yeah, and it was a looooong period of time,” you are correct.  No less than 4 delays were implemented before the final date of June 12, 2009.  But shut off the analog, we did.  And most of the VHF stations elected or were forced to move to UHF frequencies1.

Through the period from 1996 to the analog shutoff, broadcasters retooled totally.  Nearly every piece of equipment had to be replaced.  Worse, so did the interconnections.  Routing gigabit signals around a station was quite different from sending 4.5 megahertz down a piece of 75 ohm coax with a BNC on each end.  New cameras, new processors, switchers, STL’s, transmitters, upconverters for transmitting standard definition and NTSC signals.  In fact, imagine a newscaster sitting at the news desk and someone sitting at home.  Now think about every piece of gear in between.  OK.  Replace it!

Did you leave out the receiver?  Replace that with either a new HD receiver or a converter box to receive the digital signal over the air and output an NTSC signal for an existing “TV set.”

At this point, let’s take a step back.  The original concept for digital was not implemented to give us better television.  If that were the case, we probably wouldn’t have adopted 8-VSB.  It was done so that VHF frequencies would be vacated and available for auction, the money going to the US treasury.  Follow the money.  It was about the buck.

While we’re still in the Wayback machine, please recall that Congress, in its low bandwidth intelligence, suddenly realized that the new rules would make obsolete every existing set in the country.  Soooo, they embarked on a coupon program – every household was eligible for 2 coupons which would give them a shiny new converter for between zero and ten dollars.  Actual cost?  About $45 to $50.  The difference was to come out of the original spectrum auction.  And recall, too, that paying for those converters all but wiped out the revenue from the auction.  Go figure.

Back to today – well, last week.

Sharing, eh?

Here are some implications to think about: 
·    Broadcasters spent a lot of money on equipment to provide high definition signals
o    1080i requires the entire 6 mHz channel a broadcaster is assigned 
o    Sharing channels will mean no more 1080i...possibly no 720p
o    The lower bandwidth required means broadcasters wasted a lot of money meeting standards implemented by a government that now proposes – less than 3 years later – to change them
·    Consumers have purchased tens of millions of high definition receivers which shortly may have little high definition to receive
·    The middle men – cable, telco and satellite have ponied up plenty to accurately decode and re-encode broadcasters’ signals.   No HD to decode?  OK, more room for other channels.  More competition for broadcasters

So the over-the-air gang is being asked to voluntarily combine some of their signals onto a single channel.  Give up major opportunities to compete via the additional channels they can provide within the digital envelope.  And the commission’s reasoning?  Greater penetration of personal communications service.  Yes.  More frequencies for WIMAX, 3G, 4G, 4-1/2G, G minor 7 and what’s to come.  As far as our FCC is concerned, everyone should have access to broadband anywhere and everywhere, 24/7.

I took you through what that looks like back here: .  In many places, there isn’t that much bandwidth from DC to even gamma rays!  Yes, I exaggerate; given the toxic effects of gamma rays, I doubt we’ll be using that “band” soon.

The bottom line is the average consumer is going to lose a lot of what he/she bought that flatscreen for.  The average broadcaster (who voluntarily pairs with another) gives up either some high definition formats or some additional channels – and revenue – and gets to drive his new Porche of a system at VW speeds…and we all get to wait.  For the other shoe to drop.  The one that will fall if broadcasters don’t volunteer or if there aren’t enough volunteers.  Then the Ed Markeys of the world will set their sights on all broadcasters.  But, first, of course, they’ll make sure that Congress still gets the lowest advertising rates available on the stations they haven’t already put out of business.

1As it turned out, little real-world study of propagation was done prior to implementation of the 8-VSB standard that US broadcasters use.  Fact is, overall reception and building penetration is better on the UHF frequencies than on high-VHF frequencies and even more so than low-VHF frequencies.  So the folks who bit the bullet and transitioned to UHF gained instead of lost.  And, instead of losing their original channel identities, they were able to maintain virtual channel numbers.  e.g., channel moving channel 2 to channel 48 was a physical change but to the audience, it still appeared as and was tuned as channel 2.  At least no need to change the logo.