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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 29, 2007 1 comments
Arguably one of the biggest tech stories of our lifetimes is the transformation of telephone companies into full-service providers of television, internet, and phone service. The latest news is that Verizon is making this transformation much faster than AT&T. Verizon has signed up 207,000 subscribers for its FiOS service while AT&T's U-verse lags behind at 10,000 (a figure the company is actually bragging about!). This isn't a direct competition because their service areas don't overlap. Verizon serves northeastern and mid-Atlantic states while AT&T dominates the south, the midwest, and part of the west coast. There is, however, a struggle between two visions: Verizon's, which brings fiber right to your doorstep, and AT&T's, a hybrid that uses old copper wiring for the last mile. Verizon is pressing its point with the announcement that FiOS network speeds will multiply by four to eight times with the implementation of GPON (gigabyte passive optical network) technology from Alcatel-Lucent. When I visited Verizon last year, I was told GPON would enable delivery of as many as three simultaneous HD signals by 2007-08.
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Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 28, 2007 1 comments
Soon after announcing their hoped-for merger, Sirius and XM told an investor conference call they planned to raise rates. They're beaming a different tune now. If the merger goes through, they promise to allow subscribers to block adult channels, pay a la carte, and save an unspecified amount off the current minimum of $12.95/month. The climate surrounding the merger has been chillier than expected. FCC chair Kevin Martin has expressed the opinion that the satellite services' federal operational licenses prevent them from being combined into a single company. And Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), chair of the Senate Antitrust Committee, has referred to the proposed merger as "a real bad deal for consumers."
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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.
Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 22, 2007 Published: Feb 22, 2007 0 comments
Tubular chic meets comforting conformism.

KEF's KHT5005.2 speaker system and Onkyo's TX-SR674 surround receiver are an odd couple. The KEF speakers are slim, tubular, and chic, the latest thing in décor-friendly sub/sat sets. And the Onkyo receiver? It couldn't be more conventional, conservative, even conformist. It's a plain black box with a very good features set for the price. But could it be that the two complement one another? Could this, in fact, turn into a long-term relationship?

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 22, 2007 Published: Feb 22, 2007 0 comments
Multinational speakers meet American amps.

On the battlefield of speaker design, I am the triage nurse. I walk into speaker demo rooms at trade shows, my badge sometimes inadvertently turned inward, listen for a moment, and quietly mutter to myself, "This one's a keeper," or, "He's dead, Jim." Or occasionally just, "Hmmm," because good speakers may sound iffy under bad conditions, and I respect the potential buried within an ambiguous first take. But, if my instincts tell me to pursue a review, I whip out a business card and start making arrangements on the spot.

Mark Fleischmann Posted: Mar 22, 2007 Published: Feb 22, 2007 0 comments
Listen to the violinist.

Reviewing the PSB Alpha B1 speaker system is a bit like coming home. I reviewed the original PSB Alpha for Rolling Stone back in the 1990s. Its little sister, the PSB Alpha Mini, anchored my surround system during a time when I was struggling to launch an online business, barely making ends meet, and dissipating my savings. I needed new speakers, wasn't then in a position to freeload, and didn't have much to spend. The Alpha Minis gave me what I needed—a big soundstage in a small package with no off-putting aggressiveness. The bass was just good enough to make a sub unnecessary. Let the record show that a borrowed Yamaha receiver ran the system.

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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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