The Achilles Heel of DBS PVR: Analog TV

The great thing about shows denounced as "slow," like the recent National Cable & Telecommunications Association gathering in Chicago, is the extra time afforded for actual conversation and not staccato sound bites.

That's precisely what happened upon bumping into a friend during the National Show, who professed to be the not-so-proud owner of an UltimateTV box from DirecTV Inc.

That, coupled with a sneak preview of a new chip from Broadcom Corp., prompted a closer look at personal video recorders built into direct-broadcast satellite and cable set-tops.

The fact that DBS is already offering a built-in hard drive for time-shifted TV is a scary thing, to be sure. DirecTV and EchoStar Communications Corp. are already causing churnful pain for cable video.

Adding something as innately useful as a PVR — at a time when cable's set-top suppliers are between the announcement stage ("We've got one!") and the delivery stage ("We're deploying!") — is competitively unsettling.

Or maybe not.

As it turns out, said friend doesn't live in one of the 41 cities in which DirecTV offers local, off-air stations. As a result, he gets those channels from cable, in standard analog format. One night, as he was dashing out the door — rushed, but intent on recording that night's episode of The X-Files
— he found that analog TV from any source (cable or antenna) can't be stored in Ultimate TV's PVR.

And now, this statement from the Department of the Obvious: Most of the 110 million U.S. TV viewers still watch lots and lots of episodic TV on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Episodic TV is a natural for time-shifted viewing.

The reason my friend couldn't record X-Files
with his Ultimate TV box is that it doesn't house the smarts to digitize and compress anything on the fly. Yes, signals raining down from DirecTV's satellite — pre-digitized and pre-compressed — can be captured by the hard disk. But if signals aren't pre-digitized and pre-compressed? Tough luck.

Suddenly, the fear factor induced by DBS PVR becomes a competitive fulcrum to do a better job at time-shifted PVR on all
channels, including analog.

Which brings us to the new Broadcom chip. Within the inner sanctum of Broadcom's always clandestine booth was a new, single-chip MPEG-2 (Moving Picture Expert Group) video encoder that can digitize and compress two independent video channels, simultaneously. Why does this matter? Because without it, cable will be in the same position as DBS, when its suppliers start producing combo set-top/PVR boxes.

A spectral refresher: Cable's downstream (headend-to-home) capacity lies in 6-megahertz chunks, between 50 MHz and 860 MHz. The region between 550 MHz and 860 MHz is generally where digital tiers go. The area below 550 MHz is where analog TV channels go.

In order for cable to do a better job than DBS at time-shifted TV, it will be necessary to digitize and compress analog channels in real time. (Digital video channels, obviously, are already digitized and compressed, using MPEG-2 encoding. That's why 10 digital channels can fit in one 6 MHz channel.)

Along with news of the new Broadcom chip came word that Scientific- Atlanta Inc. will use it in its forthcoming Explorer 8000. That's the set-top that contains a hard disk for PVR services. With the new chip, consumers who ultimately use the 8000 will be able to record one show while watching and time-shifting a different program, or record two programs at the same time, to be viewed right then, or later.

Motorola hasn't detailed its PVR plans yet, in terms of what's under the hood of its freshly announced DCT52X0 line (the "X" denotes storage capacity, 20 or 60 gigabytes). It's plausible, though, to expect a similar architecture — or at least one that includes the ability to digitize and compress analog TV.

More importantly, though, the dual-encoder chip means that cable's rollout of set-tops with integrated PVR, when it occurs, will probably get a warmer reception by customers. The problem uncovered by the friend who couldn't record X-Files
is one of those irritants that shows up after the purchase, and doesn't go away. It continues to vex, over and over, every time an analog signal carrying a desired show cannot be saved for later viewing.

Yet in cable boxes outfitted with a dual-encoding chip, customers will not only be able to time-shift analog (or digital) TV. They'll also be able to manipulate two analog (or digital) channels at the same time. If you live in a house with more than one person — and a TiVo box — you know why this matters. Favorite shows are different for different people, and they do sometimes overlap.

The UltimateTV box lists at $399. If my un-X-Filed
friend were within the local station footprint, he'd pay an extra $5.99 per month for that. He already pays $19.95 per month for the Ultimate TV service, on top of his $80 per month DirecTV bill. Seems pricey, for what it does, and doesn't, do.

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