Comcast digital switcheroo may make a la carte channel choice more feasible

Across the country and soon in Chico, Comcast is slowly lowering a digital boom over its customers as part of the cable company’s transition from analog to digital television services. While the company’s new digital cable adapters will add another gadget to the jumbled electronic menagerie inhabiting people’s living rooms, the change may remove one of the hurdles to many customers’ holy grail — being able to pick, and pay for, only the channels they want to watch.
First off, the idea that Comcast would offer most of its channels as a la carte selections is merely a dream — I haven’t seen any indication that the company would want to do so. I’m only asserting that digital TV makes it more practical than before.
We haven’t heard much about a la carte in several years, but the idea remains intriguing. Instead of paying for 80 channels and watching just four, customers could pick and pay for the four channels they actually watch.
When the customer choice debate was raging, the cable and satellite industry had several objections, including that it was technologically difficult to deliver just the channels a customer wanted. That’s understandable with analog cable — in my experience, it’s difficult for the cable company to block off channels that customers aren’t supposed to have access to.
That hurdle was removed with digital cable and it should become insignificant as Comcast forces its customers to go digital. Cable companies can more easily lock and unlock channels that a customer signs up for. I’ve experienced this several times with premium channels and pay-per-view on my digital cable box.
I haven’t dealt with the more simplistic digital adapter, but I imagine Comcast would still have greater control over what’s being delivered on its pipes than during the analog days. While billing for single channels may be a headache, the delivery system itself should be better suited for a la carte.
While the public desire for a la carte may have waned, I still think it’s worth giving it a shot. Access to individual episodes of shows has taken off through digital video recorders, download sites like iTunes Store and streaming sites like Hulu, but there are some downsides to the individual episode approach. Not all series are available in these different formats. It may be easier to have access to a whole network than buying shows piecemeal.
In addition to technological hurdles, a la carte pricing may not be cheaper than the current bundled rates, based on earlier studies.
The theoretical a la carte offerings may be slightly more expensive, but at least the customers would paying for the services they want and not necessarily what the operators want them to have.

The airing of Vancouver Olympic grievances – a list

I’m generally enjoying the Vancouver Games as it enters the seventh day of competition, but some things are sticking in my mind. Please share your “grievances” in the comments.

The fence around the Olympic Flame: I think the organizers were caught flatfooted by the fact that people may want to be close to the beautiful outdoor Olympic Cauldron. At the very least, the image of a chainlink fence in front of a symbol of peaceful competition is disconcerting.

Kudos for the organizers for making changes and creating more viewing opportunities (according to this CBC News article). However, I didn’t necessarily care for one of the organizers’ excuses:

Organizers said the cauldron is far closer to the public than Olympic flames of past Games, where they’ve usually been located in or atop stadiums.

The cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games was outside Centennial Olympic Stadium and it was generally accessible to the public (at the very least it wasn’t blocked by a massive fence). I remember having lunch and taking photos mere yards from that Olympic Flame along with many spectators and families.

The Lack of Curling on NBC: This is a minor gripe at most, but it is sad when FOX has more curling on a 30-minute episode of “The Simpsons” than NBC will have in two weeks on its main network. Yes, curling is available on cable channels (that I don’t have) and is streaming live online (which I don’t have access to because I don’t have the right cable package). In recent years, curling almost always gets praised as a pleasant surprise of the Games. Maybe it’s not a primetime event, but it’s lame that NBC couldn’t find time to at least air the gold metal match on broadcast (like in the afternoon).

Shoddy online coverage: There’s a huge difference between the online coverage of the 2008 Beijing Games and in Vancouver. Just two years ago, many non-marquee events were streamed live and in their entirety. Now, it’s mostly hockey and curling aired live (with other events posted after NBC has aired them in primetime). Hockey and curling are both fine sports, but the offerings are like night and day.

Tape Delay: It’s a gripe as old as NBC’s coverage of the Games. It is certainly frustrating that NBC insists on starting its primetime program right at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. Central) even though there are live events taking place at 5 p.m. Vancouver time. And, of course, Vancouver time is the same time as Chico and the entire West Coast which just compounds the silliness.

NBC didn’t have to do this. It could have emulated a model from Canada that I thought could work fairly well here. In previous games, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation would air its primetime program live nationwide. After the end of that broadcast, the CBC would offer a special West Coast-only highlight package to help round out the night. I don’t know what the current Canadian broadcaster, CTV, is doing.

Media coverage of “the glitches”: I’m sure some of the criticism of the Vancouver organizing committee’s operation of the Games is justified, but the howling has seemed ferocious at times. The situation has drawn many comparisons to the Atlanta Games in 1996 when the media lambasted ACOG’s miscues, particularly regarding transportation (as this 1996 New York Times article details).

The disconcerting thing about the Atlanta criticism and the Vancouver gripes is that these woes somehow become part of the “legacy” of the Games. I was in Atlanta for the Games, and the woes weren’t my “highlight” of those Olympics. Yes, it wasn’t pleasant at times — I had to brave the crushing crowds on MARTA and I once had to give directions and a map to a bus driver so we could get to our destination. However, it pales in comparison to witnessing the opening ceremonies, watching track stars break world records and enjoying some of the finest art and music in my life.

Bruce Arthur of the National Post offers a nice perspective on the criticism. While acknowledging that Vancouver has been far from perfect, Arthur points out how there are at least three different views of the Games:

There is the Olympics that we in the media experience, the one the athletes experiences, and the one the public experiences. But only one of us write the verdict on the Olympics in question.

For another take on the Olympics’ legacy on host cities, The Independent looked at how cities capitalized on the infrastructure changes made for the Games. Atlanta seemed to fare much better on that score and I hope Vancouver does too.

NBC’s big Leno gamble isn’t a huge risk

In about an hour, the next step in Jay Leno’s career begins with his new series. Every weeknight at 10 p.m. viewers will get a dose of Leno — if they’re tuned to NBC. Chances are viewers will be tuned to another channel or doing something else entirely.

Clearly there’s been a lot of talk about whether “The Jay Leno Show” reflects the changing reality of television or if it will crash and burn. Newsweek’s Pop Vox blog has some insight and how results might end up being mixed.

While I lament the loss of potentially five hours of scripted television, I never really thought that NBC was taking that huge of a risk by airing Leno five nights a week. As others have helpfully pointed out, producing Leno’s show is likely a lot cheaper than filming an hour-long drama. The downside is that these cheaper shows may not have the same rating draw as a drama.

Also, the “Jay Leno Show” isn’t necessarily a revolutionary move on NBC’s part. After all, it was nearly 20 years ago when NBC and the other networks used cheaply produced newsmagazines to plug in gaps in their schedules.

I don’t think NBC ever aired “Dateline NBC” five nights a week on a consistent basis, but it certainly felt like it on some weeks.

We’ve seen networks try to save money amid increasing competition with regularly scheduled and cheap newsmagazines. This is just another link in the chain.

‘Glee’ success depends on how it’s sweetened

As “Glee” starts its first season tonight on FOX, I think a lot of the show’s success depends on how this fun show is developed.

The show’s creators have thrown in a lot of cane sugar — I enjoyed the story about high school students and their teacher working to revive a show choir. There’s something sincere about the effort to succeed in a harmless endeavor even if it isn’t popular or well regarded by other students.

On the other hand, the “Glee” chefs have also stirred in a ton of artificial corn syrup — including really blatant fake singing that detracts from the show’s impact. I’m not talking about normal dubbing, which I think happened in some of the songs from the pilot. I’m talking about fake singing on the scale of the “Nick & Jessica’s Family Christmas” special featuring Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.

The show choir’s big number in the pilot — a performance of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” — sounded overdubbed and had way too many voices for what is supposed to be a group of six singers. The vocals from the male lead sounded like they were lightly processed by an auto-tuner. That definitely detracts from a character who is supposed to have great talent.

Plus, the backing music supposedly from a jazz band sounded like a synthesizer from the 1980s. As a former band-o, this is unforgivable.

Far better critics than I (like Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune) have noted how “Glee” is trying to strike a balance between sincerity and irony.

As the show gets launched tonight, I think that it will need to balance a lot of things. Yes, sincerity and irony but also providing a semi-real slice of high school while providing enough entertainment to keep viewers tuned in.

I hope they find their sweet spot because this is a show that I could be interested in.

Venting to a TV shrink now worth $172

The approximate round-trip cost to take Amtrak’s first-class Acela train from New York to Philadelphia is about $172 (depending on demand). Thanks to TV, that cost might be free for a select few.
According to an acerbic post on the Web site Gawker, Dr. Phil is going to be on Acela for a round-trip from NYP to Philadelphia on Sept. 9. While on-board, Mr. McGraw will speak with passengers about “everyday problems.”
There’s a form to fill out if you are interested in being on the train/appearing on the show. If you’re selected, the trip is free.
I don’t know if I would do it. It’s interesting that people are willing to vent their problems on national TV for about $172. That’s a relatively low price for a TV producer to pay.
There’s also a fame factor involved in meeting and interactive with Dr. Phil. Fame and notoriety seem to be strong motivators even if there is little reward.
Also, the leather seats on Acela sound pretty nice compared to a counselor’s couch.
So is it worth discussing your problem with a talk-show host if it gets you a free train trip?

Monday’s ‘Fresh Air’ touches on food and high concert prices

I always like listening to the diverse topics discussed on public radio, but Monday’s “Fresh Air” seemed to hit a lot of high notes in my book. There were discussions about the increasing popularity of cooking shows and a look at ticket prices at concerts.

First, guest host Dave Davies chatted with Michael Pollan whose recent New York Times Magazine story touched on how Americans love watching cooking shows, but we’re actually cooking less. It was a great interview and had some sobering information.

Pollan said Americans spend an average of 24 minutes per day cooking in the kitchen and about 4 minutes doing dishes. He compared that figure to the fact that some cooking shows last twice as long as some people spend in the kitchen.

Looking toward the future, Pollan cited some marketers who feel that home cooking may fall by the wayside, much like killing, bleeding and plucking a bird if you wanted chicken for dinner.

I admit that I don’t cook at home as much as I should. I loved watching cooking shows, ranging from what Pollan called “dump-and-stir” instructional programs to the competitive shows like “Iron Chef.”

Cooking shows provide me some cultural insight and some ideas for meals (although it doesn’t necessarily translate to my kitchen). Some of the competitive programs are over the top and don’t provide direct ties to home cooking. However, Iron Chef gave me a greater appreciation of cooking and Japanese culture. Programs like “Good Eats” and “Molto Mario”  showed me essential ingredients and cooking techniques that helped in the kitchen.

In the second segment, John Seabrook discussed the live music industry following his recent article in The New Yorker.

The interesting aspect of that conversation was about Internet scalping driving up ticket prices. Seabrook said ticket prices may be set lower than full market value to encourage sell-outs and that full venues help the bottom line for parking and concessions.

I really enjoyed the discussion, but I still have strong feelings about scalpers, online or otherwise. It is fascinating how the Internet has legitimatized something that was previously illegal in many states and just a little bit scuzzy.

It miffs me that people who have no interest whatsoever in attending an event buying up and reselling tons of tickets to line their own pockets. On the other hand, I’m more understanding of season-ticket holders and others selling tickets to events they intended to attend.

Ultimately, I think scalpers needlessly drive up the cost of attending an event and I want to have no part of it even if it means that I don’t get to go.

‘Futurama’ cast, studio strike deal

Good news, everyone! Word came out Friday evening that the “Futurama” cast has signed on for the new season of the show.
It’s not clear what cleared the way toward a deal between the actors and the studio, but I’m glad they reached terms. I definitely wouldn’t want to see the actors be replaced.
The new season will begin airing next year.

Fox threat to recast ‘Futurama’ actors likely a folly

The future is in Futurama lunch boxes
Many fans of the resurrected TV series “Futurama” have gotten their dander up in recent weeks over the possibility that the show may go on without the original voice actors.

According to several sources (including this Kansas City Star blog), the actors haven’t been able to reach terms with 20th Century Fox over compensation for the new season of the show. Other parts of the show have apparently been scaled down as the series moved from the Fox TV network to DVD releases and, finally, to Comedy Central.

While I don’t know all the details about the contract negotiations, I can think of a few reasons why recasting the voice actors is a bad idea:

  • This isn’t like the old days where you could replace Darren on “Bewitched” and get away with it.
  • Recasting the actors will likely alienate the die-hard fans who stood by the show over the years. These are the fans that have willingly watched endless repeats, first on Adult Swim and later on Comedy Central. More importantly, they’ve voted with their wallets by paying for the DVD releases.
  • Fox has been getting a deal with its current voice actors. Billy West does the voices of one of major characters (Fry) and several others, including Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg and Zapp Brannigan. What do you think the odds are that the studio will be able to find one actor to do all those voices?

Threatening to recast the actors is a tactic Fox has tried before with Futurama’s sibling show, “The Simpsons.” I don’t know if Fox really benefited from the threat — all the actors were able to return, with better contracts IIRC.

Ultimately, Futurama is a show that has given me and its fans countless hours of entertainment, laughs, romance and a little bit of geeky brilliance. I hope there’s a resolution that allows this show to continue.

What the media companies giveth, they can taketh away

In just two days, I’ve seen a pair of reminders of the power media providers have when it comes to providing access to content. These providers are Amazon and Comcast.

On a national scale, some people have been crying foul about Amazon reaching out and deleting copies of books on their Kindle e-book reader. Many have noted the irony that the books being deleted in this Orwellian fashion are those by George Orwell, he of “Animal Farm” and “1984” fame.

As Ars Technica notes, it appears that a third-party publisher may have not had the rights to sell Orwell’s books. I can appreciate Amazon’s desire to try to correct a situation a third party has put the company into, but I also hope that Amazon sticks to its word and doesn’t automatically delete purchased books in the future.

On the personal level, I received a letter from Comcast regarding their On Demand service. In its letter, Comcast wanted to tell me that my wide access to use On Demand to watch shows and movies from most channels at any time was a mistake. Comcast stated they were limiting most of my access unless, of course, I chose to upgrade to a more-expensive package.

I downgraded to local channels to save money. While On Demand is a nice perk for a handful of shows I don’t have access to anymore, it’s simply not worth the additional $40 per month to return to Standard Cable with Digital.

I don’t quite understand it — Comcast should be encouraging use of On Demand because it offers a lot of the advantages of watching shows on the Internet, but from the comfort and convenience of your living-room television. Instead Comcast is helping me opt for the cheaper solution with more available programming on the Internet.

At least Comcast is giving me a heads up about the change. It’s pretty easy for media companies to simply flip a switch and take away stuff that we take for granted.

Winners and losers in the digital TV conversion

Digital TV converter boxI want to check out some winners and losers with the recent switch to digital TV over-the-air signals. Depending on where you live or what you like to watch, the switch had some pretty interesting outcomes.

Here’s a quick look at the scorecard:

Winner — The National Football League. The original conversion date was set in mid-February. Lawmakers took pains to avoid making the switch around the Super Bowl. Even the summer switch doesn’t affect the NFL.
Losers — The National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. It’s pretty clear that Congress _didn’t_ consider these two when setting the new date of June 12. Both the NBA and NHL were the midst of their league finals. For the NHL, a pivotal Game 7 took place on the day itself.

Winners — Big cities. When I visited Salt Lake City in March, I checked the DTV set-up at several relatives’ houses. Not only was the set-up fairly easy with indoor antennas and strong local signals, the number of channels available was amazing — upwards of 20+. Of course, SLC has 3 public TV stations so it’s not a huge surprise (those three stations are responsible for about 12 channels alone).
Losers — Small cities. It’s more of a crapshoot pulling in DTV signals from more distant locations (such as trying to view Redding stations from Chico). My neighbor has been on the roof at least four times adjusting an antenna to pull in Redding’s PBS station, KIXE 9.

When you do manage to pull in a signal, the station offerings aren’t as robust, although there are some additional channels. In many areas, some viewers may give up over-the-air viewing and opt for satellite. This isn’t necessarily an option in the smallest of markets which currently don’t have local channels on satellite.

Winners — People with good converter boxes. Having a good converter box can greatly add to a viewer’s DTV experience. Look out for the ability to change the viewing options (such as zooming in on the image) and having a reliable on-screen program guide.
Losers — People with bad converter boxes. I tested a couple of boxes that stunk out loud. It was next-to-impossible to change some of the viewing options. Some of the boxes had a clunky interface, requiring scrolling through several on-screen menus.

Draw — People watching TV over-the-air. Assuming you can pull in DTV signals on your antenna, the viewing
experience is much better than before — clearer pictures, more
offerings, etc. It’s free, but you don’t necessarily get all the channels that other systems offer.
Draw — People watching over cable/satellite. Clearer pictures and tons of channels are something that cable/satellite viewers have enjoyed for years … at a cost. Also, the new DTV subchannels are just now being added to cable systems, but they’re often require a digital cable box (at additional cost) to view.

Undecided — The people who didn’t make the switch. In the lead-up to the switchover, there were concerns that some groups of people, including the elderly, indigent and non-English speakers, wouldn’t make the switch. The number of people who weren’t prepared for DTV was shrinking, but I don’t know if it shrunk enough.

So, how do you think the DTV switchover game played out?

Photo: A Digital Stream converter box used during a May 2008 E-R test.