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.

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.