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EARS ON

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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 27, 2007 0 comments
Looking for a new way to get TV onto your PC? If you already subscribe to AT&T's next-generation U-verse service, you can also sign up for a free 14-day trial of OnTheGo. If you keep it, you'll pay an extra $10 month (over and above the usual U-verse cost) to access 30 channels from your PC. Mac users will not be pleased to hear that the service requires Windows XP, Internet Explorer, and the Windows Media Player. And the initial lineup may provoke further gripes: Fox News and Bloomberg but no CNN, Comedy Time but no Comedy Central. However, AT&T promises to add more channels as well as video on demand. OnTheGo is a joint venture with MobiTV, whose other activities include routing TV and XM channels to cell phones.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 26, 2007 2 comments
When you record a program with your DVR, does it matter whether the hard drive lives in your set-top box or on your cable company's network? Yes it does matter, a federal district court has ruled, effectively killing Cablevision's Remote Storage DVR. Soon after Cablevision introduced the innovative device, it was sued by CNN, Fox, NBC, Paramount, and TBS, who claimed the RS-DVR was not merely recording programs, but rebroadcasting them--a violation of copyright law. Cablevision argued in vain that the device was not rebroadcasting because recording and playback were controlled by the consumer. The decision will affect not only Cablevision's three million New York-area subscribers, but also cable consumers nationwide, by preventing other cable operators from introducing their own network-based DVRs. Cable operators like network DVRs because they're less costly to operate than the conventional kind. Cablevision may appeal. If it drags out the fight long enough, and Congress passes the Fair Use Act, the RS-DVR may get a second chance. The proposed law protects devices "capable of substantial, commercially-significant non-infringing use."
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 23, 2007 1 comments
What's the latest cinematic sensation? The New York Metropolitan Opera! The Met struck a deal with exhibitor chain National CineMedia for high-def theatrical telecasts of six operas. The first four--The Magic Flute, I Puritani, The First Emperor, and Eugene Onegin--sold out 48 of 60 houses, making Mozart, Tan Dun, Bellini, and Tchaikovsky more popular than Prince, Bon Jovi, and The Who. The fact that people are paying $18 per ticket, versus $10 for rock acts, brings even wider smiles to exhibitors. Next up are The Barber of Seville (Rossini) and Il Trittico (Puccini, set model by Douglas W. Schmidt pictured). While the telecasts have prospered in big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, and Washington, they're also drawing crowds in smaller markets including Huntsville, Alabama; Pueblo, Colorado; Boise, Idaho; and Dayton, Ohio. The Met will continue its longstanding Saturday-afternoon FM radio and more recent Sirius broadcasts. Its public-TV exposure had dwindled in recent years due to union pressures, but thanks to a new profit-sharing plan with the unions, the same half-dozen productions listed above will air on public TV, in HD, with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. There is, however, a window between theater and television. So if you just cannot wait for Rossini--or just like the social ritual of enjoying opera in the presence of fellow music lovers--check your local theater listings.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 22, 2007 2 comments
Should the Motion Picture Association of America add a sixth rating? The current set of five includes G, for general audiences: PG, parental guidance suggested; PG-13, parents strongly cautioned; R, restricted; and NC-17, no one 17 and under admitted. Pressure is building to subdivide R into two new ratings, one for fleetingly racy material, and another (already informally known as hard-R) for extremely graphic horror pics. There are precedents for subdivision and name changing. After all, before there were PG and PG-13, there was a single M rating, for mature audiences. And X changed its name to NC-17 when the terms obscene and pornographic became "legal terms for courts to decide," as the MPAA notes in its explanation of ratings (a comic masterpiece of hairsplitting and equivocation). Now pressure is building from parent groups who feel, as Variety explains, that the current R "is too broad, encompassing everything from a few swear words or brief flashes of nudity to repeated scenes of stomach-churning mutilation and disembowelments." Hollywood is listening, but doesn't want to shove hard-R titles into NC-17 because exhibitors shun films in that ultimate category almost completely and Blockbuster won't stock them at all. My suggestion: Rather than complicate the system with a sixth rating, keep the hard-R material within R, and move soft-R material down into a broadened PG-13. The MPAA's rating guide already uses 306 words to describe PG-13 versus a mere 65 words to describe R. I say add another hundred words of fork-tongued bureaucratese to PG-13 and call it a day. (The illustration is facetious, not a serious proposal.)
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 21, 2007 2 comments
A watermarking technology used to trace pirated movies back to the source will soon be built into set-top boxes. Thomson developed NexGuard to trace pirate masters back to the theaters where they were stolen with camcorders or to DVDs distributed to reviewers and awards juries. Soon chips will be built into STBs to read watermarks in MPEG-2, MPEG-4 AVC, and VC-1 formats. The technology might be applicable to cable, satellite, or any other kind of STB. So if a piece of copyrighted material enters your home through the box, and ends up being pirated or file-shared, it will bear an individual watermark leading the copyright holder back to you. Should you worry? Said a Thomson executive: "The idea is to slow down piracy without limiting the use of the consumer. They should not be upset about this unless they are widely redistributing content." Of course, if you loan an archival video to someone who does file sharing, the copyright holder might become upset, and the copyright holder's attorney might make you very upset.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 20, 2007 5 comments
The fight over new Internet-radio royalties heated up Friday when National Public Radio took a stand against against them. In advance of a petition for reconsideration, filed with the federal Copyright Royalty Board, came this statement from NPR's Andi Sporkin: "This is a stunning, damaging decision.... Public radio's agreements on royalties with all such organizations, including the RIAA, have always taken into account our public service mission and non-profit status. These new rates, at least 20 times more than what stations have paid in the past, treat us as if we were commercial radio--although by its nature, public radio cannot increase revenue from more listeners or more content, the factors that set this new rate. Also, we are being required to pay an internet royalty fee that is vastly more expensive than what we pay for over-the-air use of music, although for a fraction of the over-the-air audience. This decision penalizes public radio stations for fulfilling their mandate, it penalizes emerging and non-mainstream musical artists who have always relied on public radio for visibility and ultimately it penalizes the American public...." Like NPR itself, many local public radio stations now have active websites with audio feeds, podcasts, and other content that doesn't make it on the air. NPR's audience hit an all-time high of 26.5 million in fall 2006 and has been adding a million listeners a year for the past five years.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 19, 2007 1 comments
Who is this pianist? What is he playing? It's pretty soulful.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 19, 2007 7 comments
Like Poe's purloined letter, some stories lay in plain sight, unnoticed. On rooftops, no less. I'm talking about the return of the humble TV antenna in the age of HDTV. As Newsweek's Johnnie L. Roberts says so eloquently: "The irony is marvelous. Pushed into obsolescence by the technological advances of cable and satellite, antennas are re-emerging thanks to one of the most promising high-tech services of the digital age. High-def channels can be plucked out of thin air by antennas just like regular broadcast signals--no cable, no satellite dish, no monthly bill, no waiting for the cable man." OK, if you've got a Jon Stewart addiction, the dear old antenna will do nothing to help. But how many such addictions do you really have? If the answer is just one or two, try this exercise: Get your cable or satellite bill. Multiply what you're paying for television by 12. That's what you're spending every year for Jon Stewart. Still think it's worth it? Then multiply the figure by 10--that's the amount of cash you could have put in your retirement fund over a decade. And what with cable's constant rate hikes, the final figure will be considerably larger than this simple calculation. If free TV seems like a good idea after all, the Consumer Electronics Association maintains an antennaweb site expressly to help people like you save money every month. Consumer hints: All HDTV channels live in the UHF band, so make sure your antenna works well at those frequencies (like the Terk indoor model shown here). You'll need a TV, set-top box, or DVR with an ATSC (meaning digital) tuner. But the results are worth it. Broadcast HDTV operates at a higher data rate than cable or (especially) satellite. So over-the-air HD picture quality is more than competitive. Salut!
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 15, 2007 0 comments
Will Slacker do for Internet radio what Napster did for file sharing? Check out the beta version. At the heart of the multifaceted scheme is an Internet radio service that will build out to 10,000 streaming channels. There are Slacker-programmed channels, but you can skip songs you don't like, program your own channels, and even publish them on your website. Ads support the free version; or you can pay $7.50/month to ditch the ads and expand your skipping privilege beyond the free six-song maximum. Slacker works with any web browser. Then there's the Slacker Jukebox software, which integrates the music on your hard drive into the Slacker experience. The plot thickens this summer with the Slacker Portable Player, with capacity between 2-120 gigs and pricing from $150-350. A touch-sensitive side strip navigates what's happening on the four-inch color screen. The player syncs with the Slacker site via USB or wi-fi. Also on the way is the Slacker Satellite Car Kit. Slacker is shrewdly leasing unused satellite capacity rather than launching its own birds. I haven't tried Slacker yet but Gizmodo has. Since Internet radio is likely an endangered species, it's reasonable to question Slacker's prospects for survival. Best-case scenario: Slacker will dazzle users with its multifarious approach, build a large base of free users, and slowly turn them into paying customers as a lower-cost alternative to the potentially monopolistic Sirius and XM.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 14, 2007 0 comments
Philips has decided to say goodbye to the initial version of its Aptura TV-backlighting technology. As Philips explained, it used "high-output fluorescent lamps, operated in scanning mode." In effect, the backlight blinked rapidly. This, Philips said, would "cancel out the sample-and-hold effect, which is characteristic of LCD technology," thus reducing motion smear. Better contrast was another benefit, as the backlight dimmed for dark scenes, and worked in tandem with video processing to reduce light leakage. The "deep dynamic dimming" also increased viewing angle. Philips has long been selling non-switching backlit TVs in its Ambilight line, and plans to explore a new and little-used backlighting scheme using LED technology. Philips already markets LED products through its lighting division. (Thanks to Geoff for spotting this one.)
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 13, 2007 4 comments
Just arrived is a long-awaited plan to subsidize digital-to-analog convertors for old TVs to be affected by the final switchover to digital television on February 17, 2009. Each household may request up to two $40 coupons from the National Telecommunications and Information Association. Congress allocated nearly a billion dollars for the program, though critics claim that's not enough, and another half-billion eventually may follow. That should take care of the 15.4 million households wholly dependent on broadcast TV. Also potentially affected would be cable subscribers plugging analog signals directly into their sets. They may have to get convertors from their operators. Affected households may request coupons starting on January 1, 2008 and no later than March 31, 2009 via mail, web, or toll-free number. While the coupons can be used only to buy convertors, there are other ways to make the transition to DTV. You might buy a recording device with an ATSC tuner. Or, of course, a new TV. See NTIA's consumer fact sheet and final ruling.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 12, 2007 1 comments
A new royalty structure approved by the federal Copyright Royalty Board has webcasters quaking. Formerly they paid the music industry's SoundExchange between 6 and 12 percent of their revenue. But under the new royalty structure, they'll pay $0.0008 to stream one song to one listener, rising to $0.0019 in 2010. That may not sound like much, but it would amount to 1.28 cents per listener per hour, more than estimated current ad revenue of 1.1 to 1.2 pennies per hour. And that's just for starters. Rates would continue to rise every year. More bad news for small webcasters: There would also be a minimum charge of $500 per year per channel. And the new rules don't apply to songwriter publishing royalties, potentially an additional expense. Whether all this will kill web radio as widely predicted remains to be seen. But the fledgling medium will certainly have to find a more lucrative business model if it wants to survive. So, a speculative question: Just how much would you be willing to pay for Internet radio?
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 09, 2007 0 comments
I'm looking for a lead. Let's see, famous people named George. OK, my pick is George Harrison. Asked what he called his then-unusual Beatle moptop, he replied in a magnificently deadpan manner: "I call it Arthur." In similar spirit, Chestnut Hill Sound calls its iPod-centric compact audio system George.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 08, 2007 1 comments
Are you an AT&T Homezone customer? If so, the set-top box you're using to access video-on-demand has learned a new trick: cellphone-activated DVR programming. There's no charge except for the existing Homezone charge of $9.99/month. AT&T hopes that will keep you happy until U-verse, its fiber/copper hybrid IP-over-TV service, reaches more areas. If you're a Verizon customer, you needn't feel left out. A long promised arrangement with TiVo will come to fruition soon. The charge will be $1.99/month. Sprint is getting into the act too, in association with Comcast and Time Warner. A Jupiter Research survey quoted by Reuters said fewer than 10 percent of respondents were excited about cell-driven DVR recording. Then again, none of them had had a chance to try it.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 07, 2007 1 comments
Let's say you spot a bargain on the Best Buy website. You go to the local Best Buy to buy the product. Sorry, says the salesperson, that's not the correct price for that product. How can that be?, you ask. The salesperson boots up the site and shows you and then you feel like a ninny. But you're not a ninny--you've merely been robbed. Best Buy has confirmed to Connecticut state investigators that it maintains a second site, an intranet site, with different prices. I'll let "Consumer Watchdog" George Gombossy of the Hartford Courant tell the rest of the story: "State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal ordered the investigation into Best Buy's practices on Feb. 9 after my column disclosed the website and showed how employees at two Connecticut stores used it to deny customers a $150 discount on a computer advertised on BestBuy.com. Blumenthal said Wednesday that Best Buy has also confirmed to his office the existence of the intranet site, but has so far failed to give clear answers about its purpose and use. 'Their responses seem to raise as many questions as they answer,' Blumenthal said." Best Buy's serpentine response is to blame its employees: "We are reminding our employees how to access the external BestBuy.com web site to ensure customers are receiving the best possible product price."

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