This marks the inaugural year of Top Innovators, a new franchise recognizing the 10 most influential individuals, technologies or phenomena in the business of television. This year's focus was HDTV and the forces driving it. TVB gleaned the following list from of a coterie of industry veterans and experts.
SPORTS | Super Bowl
Nothing promotes high-definition like the Super Bowl, the country's biggest sporting event. This past February, the New York Giants' upset of the undefeated New England Patriots attracted the game's biggest audience ever with 97.5 million viewers, putting Fox's high-definition production of the game in front of more people than ever.
New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree making the game-winning catch of Super Bowl XLII. Photo Courtesy of Fox Sports/Getty Images
Even with all eyes on Fox, producing the game was business as usual, said Jerry Steinberg, senior vice president of field operations for Fox, which has been producing National Football League games in 720p high-definition since 2004.
"We showed up in Phoenix with several years of experience doing HD," Steinberg said. That included shooting with high-speed HD cameras that captured images at 400 to 600 frames per second and creating hi-def 3D graphics with Chyron Duet systems.
One of the shots Steinberg is most proud of was of Giants' wide receiver David Tyree making the game-winning catch.
"That shot was seen all over the world for weeks," he said. "You load up with technology, hoping you get one of those moments, and that makes it all worth it. "
While the Super Bowl gets HD in front of more people than almost any other television event, football in general--with its legions of rabid fans--has been one of HD's best ambassadors.
Fox came to the HD sports game later than other networks. CBS produced the first HD football games in a joint effort with Sony in 1998, but Fox now offers more HD sports coverage than any other broadcast network. This coming season will be the first one in which all the football games on Fox will be in HD.
LOCAL | Stations Launching HD Newscasts
In 2007, a critical mass of local TV stations finally started airing their newscasts in high-definition with more than 90 stations in 51 markets upgrading to HD broadcasts.
WPEC-TV, the CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., owned by Freedom Communications of Irvine, Calif., is one of more than 100 TV stations in the country doing hi-def local news. "Stations want to brand themselves as leaders in high tech and to be first in the market with HD," said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of media relations for the National Association of Broadcasters. "Pretty soon the question is going to be 'why haven't you made the switch,' not 'when are you going to make the switch.'"
Several forces combined to finally drive stations forward. First, they have to complete their transition to digital by Feb. 17, 2009. While stations have largely converted to digital, many are still tweaking systems and purchasing equipment. With HD equipment now costing about the same as standard-definition equipment, it finally makes sense for stations to upgrade their entire news operations to high def, even though transmitting HD pictures from the field remains tricky.
"When you are flipping through channels, people tend to linger longer on an HD picture than they do on an SD picture," Wharton said. "If you are a news director driven by miniscule improvements in ratings points, switching to HD can make the difference between having a successful quarter and an unsuccessful quarter."
COOPERATION | CEA/NAB/NCTA Consumer Education Outreach
It's all well and good that Congress finally mandated a deadline for the digital-TV transition and the FCC is willing to enforce it, but if no one knows they are about to lose their analog TV signal, big problems can ensue.
CEA Senior Vice President Jason Oxman with a cardboard version of Florence Henderson at one of the lobby's events in Washington, D.C. The CEA recruited Henderson's likeness as the face of its "Convert Your Mom" consumer DTV education campaign. Photo Courtesy of the CEA That's where the consumer education outreach program jointly manned by the Consumer Electronics Association, the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable Telecommunications Association comes into play.
"Every member of the coalition is doing something different," said Jason Oxman, CEA's senior vice president of industry affairs. For example, CEA is running a campaign featuring Florence Henderson of Brady Bunch fame exhorting people to "convert your mom."
"The campaign crosses all age groups, but with this campaign we're targeting baby boomers with senior-citizen parents," Oxman said. "Our goal is to make sure that no one loses access to free-over-the-air television because of a lack of information about the transition."
The three organizations have worked with local TV stations, cable operators and direct satellite operators to dedicate $1 billion worth of airtime to public service announcements informing consumers they need to be prepared because the transition is coming.
With the transition still about eight months away, the campaign has boosted consumer awareness from 40 percent to nearly 80 percent, Oxman said.
PIONEER | Discovery
Discovery Communications is to high-definition natural history programming what ESPN is to sports. Last November, the company made a huge splash with its mega mini-series, "Planet Earth," which was more than five years in the making and was the first series of its kind to be shot entirely in high definition. From Discovery's Planet Earth, the network's quintessential hi-def nature series. Photo Courtesy of Discovery
But Planet Earth is just the tip of the HD iceberg for Discovery, which was the first cable network group to launch an all high-def channel with HD Theater in 2002. Today, HD Theater is the most widely distributed all-HD basic cable network, with shows such as American Chopper, City Slickers, Rogue Nature, Sunrise Earth and several other shows exclusive to the hi-def network.
"It all goes back to the vision of our founder John Hendricks," said John Honeycutt, chief media technology officer for Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Communications. "He really believed the quality of HD made for a compelling consumer experience. It was always his belief that consumers would enjoy and adapt to very high quality images in the home."
Discovery remains absolutely committed to high definition, working with its producers all over the world to make it easier to produce HD content. This month, the network launched its sixth HD network--Planet Green.
FORMATS | Blu-ray vs. HD DVD
Earlier this year, Blu-ray emerged victorious from the long format battle with HD DVD after a series of events hammered the final nails into the struggling format's coffin.
Sales of Blu-ray high-definition DVD players haven't picked up the way observers expected they would, but it's early yet, said Dave Arland, president of Arland Communications. "When we began the digital TV transition, people used to wonder why anyone would care about picture quality. Look at us now."***image10***
Observers believe Sony won the war for Blu-ray on three fronts: first, it included a Blu-ray disc drive in its popular PlayStation 3 players, immediately boosting adoption of the format. Next, Sony conducted a compelling awareness campaign, urging adoption of the format. And finally, Blu-ray included a hacker-proof, anti-copying system that was important to the Hollywood studios.
Still with less than 550 titles available in Blu-ray, consumers hardly feel that a Blu-ray player is a must-have purchase. Also, with the cost of Blu-ray players (and PlayStation 3 consoles) still running close to $400 each, prices still need to
come down a bit before consumers race to buy them.
"As with any of these technologies, the secret sauce is content," Arland said. "As more and more movies and TV shows go to Blu-ray and HD quality, you are going to see more sales. This is just the calm before the storm."
TREND | Flat-screen TV Manufacturers
Adoption of high-definition television has been driven by two things--the amount of
content available and the constantly dropping price of the TVs. Good thing there are "literally dozens of manufacturers of TVs. If I'm a consumer and I'm looking for a great deal of innovation and a lot of choice, then I'm happy," said CEA's Oxman.
In addition, there's a prevailing notion that flat-screen TVs stop giving sports widows a reason to veto their partners' desire to have a giant HDTV sitting in the middle of the living room where they can slump on the couch and watch sports.
"The great thing about flat panel is that it gives people a whole new reason to buy into HD technology, beyond the screen or the multichannel sound," Arland said. "When it's flat, you can hang it on a wall and it's less obtrusive. It's even sexy looking."
Today, consumers have a range of choice--they can buy a smaller, flat-screen LCD that can reside anywhere in the house, from the kitchen to the den to the bedroom. They can sacrifice a little picture quality for a larger LCD. Or they can buy a 50-inch plasma for the living room that offers better color purity and better fast-motion pictures.
"The consumer electronics industry is somewhat unique in that consumers have an expectation that as new product is introduced with new features, they expect to pay less. The trend in pricing for HDTV sets reflects that," Oxman said. "In 2003, the average unit price for a TV was $1,674. By the end of 2007, it was $938. Flat-screen TVs offer sharper images and better resolution, they are thinner, they are more energy efficient, and they now cost 60 percent less."
DECREED | Congress/FCC
It's been a sticky, complicated, time-consuming process, but without Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, there would be no transition to digital television.
The process started 12 years ago when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That law assigned the end of analog to Dec. 31, 2006, but Congress eventually pushed it back by more than two years.
L to R) FCC Commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Michael J. Copps, Chairman Kevin J. Martin, Commissioners Jonathan S. Adelstein and Robert M. McDowell. Copps, Martin and Adelstein have served the longest and presided over broadcast issues ranging from ownership and obscenity to DTV channel assignment and white spaces. Photo Courtesy of the FCC Once the Telecom Act passed, Congress set about giving the industry a series of gradual deadlines it had to meet as it marched toward the transition. For example, stations airing the top four networks (typically ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) in the top 10 markets were required to have their digital channels up and running at least part time by May 1, 1999. Stations in smaller markets were required to come on line in later months.
On the consumer electronics side, half of new DTV sets 36 inches and larger were required to have over-the-air digital tuners by July 1, 2004. One year later, all new sets 36 inches and larger had to meet that requirement, while half of smaller sets had to have a digital tuner. July 1, 2005, also served as the deadline for the top four stations in the 100 largest markets to flip the switch to full-time digital broadcasts. One year after that, all other stations had to go to full-time digital.
Setting and enforcing those deadlines eventually proved to be the blueprint for success. The FCC never allowed TV stations and consumer electronics manufacturers to wriggle out of their legal requirements, even though both Congress and the FCC had to make plenty of adjustments on the way.
Now that the analog spectrum has been auctioned off--to the tune of $19 billion for the federal government--the industry is on track to completely transition to digital come February.
"I would give all credit to Congress and our elected leaders," Oxman said.
Still, how much of the credit Congress will want won't be fully known until Feb. 18, 2009.
COUPONS | Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Program
Anita Wallgren, program director of the National Telecommunication and Information Administration's TV converter box coupon program, took on one of the toughest jobs in Washington when she agreed to make sure that every American who wanted an analog-to-digital converter box would be able to afford one. And she had to do it in very short order.
While Congress passed a law in February 2006 that created the program, it didn't get going until eight months later, when the FCC set technical standards for creating the converter boxes. Today, there are 82 models created by 60 manufacturers, all of which are certified by the NTIA.
On Jan. 1 of this year, the NTIA began issuing coupons first-come, first-serve, to those who applied. Each U.S. household is eligible for two of the $40 coupons. Congress allocated enough money to the program for roughly 33.5 million coupons, or around 16.7 million households if each requests two coupons.***image15***
The NAB estimates that there are nearly 70 million TV sets in homes around the country used for over-the-air reception. Around 20 million homes are thought to rely entirely on OTA television.
So far, more than 16.7 million coupons have been requested and 15.4 million have been issued. Nearly 3.3 million coupons have been redeemed--in less than six months, Wallgren said.
"We're very pleased with the success of the program so far," she said. "We think this program is essential to the successful completion of the digital transition. Clearly Congress wanted to make sure that no viewer is left behind without TV service."
ADOPTION | Consumers
It seems a little odd to honor the American consumer for buying stuff. Isn't that what we are constitutionally mandated to do? Isn't that what the pursuit of happiness is?
Still, consumers seem to finally be getting a hankering for HD, even though it's been on the market for a decade. Lower prices, plentiful programming and the fact that TV is all going digital is driving consumers to pick up sleek flat screens and enjoy everything from Sunday Night Football to Sunrise Earth in HD.
***image14***A study by Frank Magid Associates reports that 25 percent of U.S. households own HDTVs and that four in 10 HDTV owners plan to buy another one in the next year.
A quick stop at Walmart.com is an indicator of the selection of HDTVs available to the American consumer. A college student just setting up his dorm room might want to pick up a 19-inch LCD flat panel for just under $300, while the die-hard TV fan might be looking to upgrade to a 52-inch 1080p LCD for $1,700.
And it's a good thing for the TV industry that Americans are typically spenders not savers: "We surveyed people about how they were going to spend their economic stimulus checks and 20 percent of Americans plan to spend at least some of their check on consumer electronics," CEA's Oxman said. "Of those, the top three were computers at 53 percent, digital televisions at 39 percent and mobile phones at 23 percent."
Take that, iPod.
CARRIAGE | Cable and DBS Operators
Cable and DBS operators are currently engaged in a to-the-death battle over who can offer consumers more HD channels more quickly. ***image12***
Pay TV services know that the discerning, upscale consumers they seek tend to invest in fancy home theaters. Once their flat-screen and surround-sound systems are installed, they want to be treated to the best content available. In addition, keeping those subscribers happy reduces churn.
DirecTV is currently the high-definition leader with 95 HD networks and Sunday Ticket, which broadcasts every out-of-market National Football League game each weekend. EchoStar's Dish Network is on DirecTV's heels, also offering around 95 HD channels. Both services hope to be up to 100 HD networks by year's end.
Cable operators are trying to compete, but with less capacity available, most operators are currently offering fewer than 50 HD networks in any market. By the end of the year, they hope to be at 50 in markets across the country and up to 100 in New York City, the country's largest TV market.
While they work to increase the number of HD networks they can offer, cable operators are focusing on offering as many hours of HD movies on demand as possible.
In the end, all that competition is good for consumers, who don't need to do anything but sit back and reap the benefits.