Spoutin' Off: What do high-definition offerings mean for you?

By Michael Rau

March 12, 2007

There's been some big news over the last couple of weeks that you've probably heard or read if you: A) own a high-definition TV and receive programming via cable, B) follow media industry news stories, or C) have seen one of the rapidly proliferating advertisements touting this breakthrough.

I'm referring to the recent announcements regarding so-called "carriage agreements" reached between the parent corporations of three of our local broadcast affiliates and Cox Cable, which permit Cox to carry those affiliates' high-definition signals over their digital programming delivery system. It should be noted here that this comes about two months after Verizon announced they'd reached a similar agreement for their FiOS system. But of course, Verizon's market penetration right now is less than 1percent that of Cox.

What this agreement means specifically to the companies involved, we'll never know, and frankly, it doesn't really matter. What's important is what it does and doesn't mean to you - the consumer of television programming.

First off, I should say that I live in one of the neighborhoods in Virginia Beach in which Verizon chose to launch their FiOS service. Being naturally inquisitive, I checked out the deal. I had planned to report that in a side-by-side comparison, I consider the Verizon package to be a much better bargain than Cox's digital service - based solely on the fact that Verizon offers more channels for less money.

However, after first looking on their Web site a few weeks ago and making that determination, I recently went back to look up some details for this column. I was disappointed to discover no way to sign up for FiOS TV service without also subscribing to their high-speed Internet service. All they offered was a bundled package.

There was a tiny reference that said "other packages available," but they were nowhere to be found on the Web site. Maybe this is just an oversight on their Web page, but it's a bad one. Hopefully they're not forcing people to buy bundled services. I, for one, never will.

If you're a satisfied Cox customer and have a little patience, I'd guess it's only a matter of time (and dependent on the aggressiveness of expansion by Verizon) before Cox adjusts the pricing structure of their digital programming to be comparable. It's the payoff from true competition in a free market.

Now about your TV...

Here's the deal: There are all kinds of flat-panel TVs out there, and the prices keep coming down. However, not all of these are high-definition, nor do all of them have a digital tuner.

If you've been reading this column for a while, you may remember one that ran in October 2005 where we talked about the transition to digital TV. I mentioned the deadline dates for TVs to come equipped with a digital tuner. Well, the last deadline has passed, and all TVs of all sizes now manufactured must come equipped with such a tuner.

This tuner enables these TVs to pick up over-the-air digital signals - something that all the local broadcast stations now offer (except our friends at WSKY, who recently lost their brand-new digital tower in a bad storm).

But if you get your TV via a hard line, whether cable or fiber, a digital tuner is irrelevant (or almost - more on that in a minute). Cox and Verizon both scramble their signals, so if you want to get digital TV, including the newly-offered HD programming, you have to rent a descrambler from your service provider. The channel tuner is integrated into the descrambler, so just like with the old analog set-top boxes, you set the TV itself on one channel and actually surf using the set-top box.

There is an exception to this. Some better TVs equipped with digital tuners also come with something called a CableCard slot. If your TV has one of these, and you get digital service through Cox, you can rent a CableCard-based descrambler instead of a set-top box. It's much less per month to rent, installs in your TV, and lets you use your new digital TV's native tuner. It still requires a service call from a technician who has to configure it in place once installed, but it does mean you'll have one less accouterment (and remote control) to deal with.

Verizon doesn't offer a CableCard-type descrambler, so you have to use their set-top box. This strikes me as kind of silly. I don't like that the signals are scrambled to begin with, but if someone already has invested in a TV with a digital tuner, why force them to rent a redundant tuner instead of just the descrambling device?

Anyway, congratulations to all these titans of the broadcast industry for getting these issues worked out.

As complicated as the transition from analog to digital TV will be for the average consumer, anything the industry can do to make it easier can only generate good will - as well as more potential consumers.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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