Local Rhythms – Ditch The Arenas

cheatseats.jpgPeople will line up to see Bob Seger until the day he can’t remember the words to “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.” Why wouldn’t they? He’s a working class hero who can play guys half his age under the table.

The fifth song Seger performed last Saturday night in Boston was “Old Time Rock and Roll.” There are but a handful of players with deep enough catalogs to drop such a big number that early and still be able to deliver more. He did – gems like “Turn the Page,” “Night Moves” and “Against the Wind.”

Barring a miracle, the next time I hear any of those songs, it’ll be a bar band playing them. I’ve had my fill of the cynical business that’s turned rock and roll into a commodity, and its most passionate fans into dupes. Music was never meant to be played in a cavernous barn like the TD Banknorth Garden – or whatever it’s called next week (they really should fasten sponsor names to the building with Velcro).

But here’s the worst of it. Last November I bought tickets the moment they went on sale. For nearly 200 dollars, I got two seats in the last row of the top balcony – barely in the same zip code. Like most arena concerts, every ticket sold for the same price. Show promoter Live Nation must figure star struck fans will pay anything, and won’t care where they sit.

If you did care, Live Nation had the answer. In the middle of December, Ticketmaster (their parent company), sent an email offering me really, really good seats, which they’d kept from retail sale. All I had to do was pay three times face value at auction.

Lately, Ticketmaster is pushing for legislation to outlaw ticket reselling operations like StubHub and EBay, but that’s just so they can have a monopoly on scalping.

I’ve got nothing against making money, but I’m opting out of this game. There’s plenty of good live music that doesn’t require me to bring cotton for nosebleeds, or do business with the Ticketmaster mafia.

I don’t believe for a second that my small protest will dent the ambitions of, say, Van Halen, who still hate each other but are going out this summer to milk their minions. Nor will it slow down the Police’s upcoming Stewart Copeland Annuity Tour, or stop Mick Jagger from making his child support payments.

No matter. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell – if you want me, I’ll be in the bars. Speaking of which:

Thursday: Dave Alvin & The Guilty Men, Boccelli’s – Great music lives in Bellows Falls, and this is one of the best “gets” in a long time. Alvin fronted the Blasters and played with mid-80’s punk standard bearers X as well. Lately, he’s putting his own special stamp on Americana. The West Coast native’s latest project is compilation of California songwriters. He’s comfortable in Bakersfield, South Central, and all points in between.

Friday: Comedy Connection with Mike Siscoe, Electra – At this West Lebanon nightspot, first Fridays are all about comedy. Siscoe’s material ranges from familiar topics like teenage hormones and novel attention disorder treatments (hint: they’re not legal), to character bits featuring the public access show “Hookah Time,” with a Borat-type host and cheesy production values. It’s pretty funny stuff.

Saturday: Stonewall, Christophe’s (Ludlow) – Oops, I had Peter Pidgeon and Arcoda listed here, but it’s actually next week.  Since both the Heritage and Stonewall are Martin Hansen joints, I’ll replace my mistake with a plug for the best power trio in the Twin State region, and maybe points beyond.  Check out their MySpace site to listen to their latest Exsubel Records release.

Sunday: Josh Ritter, Latchis Theatre (Brattleboro) – A star in Ireland, he’s finally starting to catch fire stateside. Ritter has matinee idol looks, a wildly infectious voice, and catchy songs. Really, he’s the whole package. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this show sells out, even if it is Super Bowl Sunday. Dejected Patriots fans looking to pick up their sorrows could do a whole lot worse than this. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, a singer-songwriter led combo from Boston, open the show.

Monday: Opening Day, Salt hill 2 – The town of Newport has waited patiently for this night, and the Tuohy brothers will undoubtedly deliver the same blend of charm, service and comfort food that’s won them a loyal clientèle on the Lebanon Green. Josh and Joe say they chose Monday for a “medium” opening, but my guess is they won’t be holding much back. Live music will be coming – but not tonight. You’ll know when I do.

Robert Dubac’s “The Male Intellect”

dubacsmall.jpgAccording to Robert Dubac, man’s struggle to understand women – and vice versa – will never end.

“Women are a paradox,” says the comedian, who performs his one-man show, “The Male Intellect,” February 8 at the Claremont Opera House. “They want us to figure things out. But once we do, they want us to stop. Honesty is the most important thing to a woman – unless it’s the truth about her. They want a man to be more intelligent, but get ticked off when he’s right.”

Dubac doesn’t let men off the hook. “We like the Three Stooges,” he says, “while women don’t think even one stooge is funny. Three – that’s redundant.”

In “The Male Intellect,” the comedian morphs into an array of characters, all with worse instincts than his, to try and close the communication gap between the sexes. There’s the Colonel, a stereotypical redneck who insists that honesty is what women want, but has an odd idea of what that is.

Tell her you’re a jerk, he coaches “Bobby,” the perplexed character at the center of the show. Later, when she realizes it’s true, you can remind her that she was warned.

The bon vivant Jean-Michel offers some useless advice – “speak French,” he says, “women love that” – but does provide a telling assessment of the difference between the sexes when the subject is sex. “It is like a little light switch in your room of love,” he says. “It is on – I want it. Oops, I changed my mind – poof, it’s off.”

Man’s switch has only one position, says Jean-Pierre. “Because we never know when yours will be on, we have to keep ours on all the time.”

Throughout the show, Dubac ranges across a two-sided stage that represents his confused mind. The masculine right side, where his chauvinistic alter egos live, is cluttered and chaotic. It’s filled with stuff, like a dented file cabinet where he keeps his beer. “What?” he asks, popping a Corona. “I keep it filed under ‘B’.”

The left side, on the other hand, is a virtual clean slate, waiting to be filled with enough secrets for the just-dumped Bobby to win back his fiancé. Bobby’s feminine voice will only provide hints about how he should do that, leaving him to fill in the gaps.

Before “The Male Intellect” began its’ long run – now over 12 years, and translated into four languages – Dubac did stand-up comedy and worked as an actor. He appeared in the movies “Sketch Artist” and “The Rookie,” and had guest television roles in “Growing Pains,” “Diff’rent Strokes” and a 2-year stint on the soap opera, “Loving.”

As a comedian, Dubac honed his skills on the late 70’s concert circuit, opening for groups like the Allman Brothers and Jimmy Buffett. He also toured with the Police, who are currently readying a reunion performance at the upcoming Grammy broadcast. Back then, they were an unknown band on their first American run. “We rode around in two Econoline vans, trying to shove alternative music and comedy down the mouths of the southern rock and roll circuit,” says Dubac.

“The Male Intellect” isn’t autobiographical, he says. Dubac’s been happily married for 11 years, and his wife, a former actress, provided him with a lot of input. “When I first started doing the show, it was this little group of misogynists who were trying to figure out women,” he says. “With her help, it grew into something – a guy who’s going to flush that out of his system and face life as it really is. That’s more conducive to a relationship than drawing a line in the sand and saying that’s the way I am.

“I tell people I wrote the show, but she explained it to me,” says Dubac. “That’s her joke, actually. I have to give her credit.”

He wrote the show in the early 90s, as he grew tired of a misguided stand-up scene. “The weight of the material you could do on stage got less and less,” he says. “It was all built for that six-minute television spot that everyone wanted to get on the Tonight Show. I think it stifled the creativity.”

Though Dubac plays the subject for laughs, he wants the show to provide “a positive experience.” Couples should think of “The Male Intellect” as a pre-Valentine’s Day gift. “I am kind of sifting through the decades of therapy people go through and giving it to them in 90 minutes.” For men, it’s easier and cheaper than weekly visits to the shrink, he says, “and you get to do it while you watch another guy drink a beer.”

Seriously, says Dubac, “the show celebrates the differences between men and women, and how you can work it out.”

What’s the secret? “ It’s OK to think like a woman – it doesn’t make you gay,” he says. “Well, maybe gay enough to use coasters.”

FCC Franchise Ruling Off Base, Locals Say

A growing number of critics claim the FCC’s ruling mandating a 90-day negotiation perfod for local cable franchises is unfair to muncipalities. One critic called some of the evidence cited in support of the decision “complete and abject fiction.” From the AP:

Opponents of the FCC’s action say the new rules amount to a “federalization” of the cable franchising process. They contend the change will mean a loss of local oversight, fewer dollars for public and government access channels and the possibility of “cherry picking” by companies that choose to serve only the richest neighborhoods.

FCC Ignored “Inconvenient Facts” On Franchise Ruling

clearchannel.jpg John Dunbar of the AP updates ongoing investigation into a 2003 study spiked by the FCC because it didn’t reach the pre-appoved conclusion:

When the government decided to take a hard look at how well broadcasters were serving the needs of the communities where they operated, two economists at the Federal Communications Commission got a research idea: They would look at whether locally owned TV stations produced more local news than stations that were owned by companies based outside the area.

They found that local ownership resulted in more local news coverage — hardly a shocking conclusion. They also realized they had turned up what one of the researchers, economist Keith Brown, called “inconvenient facts.” Their findings were at odds with what their agency, under heavy lobbying from the broadcast industry, had endorsed.

The months-long study was spiked by the agency with “no plausible explanation,” Brown says. He suspects it was because the conclusions were at odds with the shared position of the FCC and the broadcast industry: that media-ownership rules were too restrictive and should be loosened.

The recent transfer of the Clear Channel cluster of local radio stations should provide an instructive look at this theory. Jeff Shapiro of Great Eastern Radio told me his “local yokel” partner left the area’s NBC affiliate when it folded into a New York station. Anyone who’ s watched WNNE since they moved their news operations across the border knows that it’s a shadow of its former self.

Courtney Galluzzo spent 20 years as WNNE’s GM of Sales, so his contribution to the new group of stations should be interesting.

With Ruling, FCC Levels the Cable TV Franchising Field?

A little late on my part, but very relevant to the discussion about FairPoint Communications’ entrance into the NH/VT/ME cable television market via IPTV.

Thanks to The Benton Foundation for posting this, and gathering a bevy of coverage and reaction links. Rather than paraphrase them, I’ve re-posted all of their excellent discussion here:

From The Benton Foundation on December 21, 2006. Here’s their mission statement:

The mission of the Benton Foundation is to articulate a public interest vision for the digital age and to demonstrate the value of communications for solving social problems. Current priorities include: promoting a vision and policy alternatives for the digital age in which the benefit to the public is paramount; raising awareness among funders and nonprofits on their stake in critical policy issues; enabling communities and nonprofits to produce diverse and locally responsive media content.

FCC ADOPTS RULES TO ENSURE REASONABLE FRANCHISING PROCESS FOR NEW VIDEO MARKET ENTRANTS
[SOURCE: Federal Communications Commission]

The Federal Communications Commission adopted a Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that establishes rules and provides guidance to implement Section 621(a)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits franchising authorities from unreasonably refusing to award competitive franchises for the provision of cable services. In the Order, the Commission concludes that the current operation of the franchising process constitutes an unreasonable barrier to entry that impedes the achievement of the interrelated federal goals of enhanced cable competition and accelerated broadband deployment. The Order addresses several ways by which local franchising authorities are unreasonably refusing to award competitive franchises. These include drawn-out local negotiations with no time limits; unreasonable build-out requirements; unreasonable requests for “in-kind” payments that attempt to subvert the five percent cap on franchise fees; and unreasonable demands with respect to public, educational and government access (or “PEG”). To eliminate the unreasonable barriers to entry into the cable market, and to encourage investment in broadband facilities, the Commission: 1) Found that franchising negotiations that extend beyond certain time frames amount to an unreasonable refusal to award a competitive franchise within the meaning of Section 621(a)(1); 2) Found that requiring an applicant to agree to unreasonable build-out requirements constitutes an unreasonable refusal to award a competitive franchise; 3) Found that, unless certain specified costs, fees, and other compensation required by local franchising authorities are counted toward the statutory five percent cap on franchise fees, demanding them could result in an unreasonable refusal to award a competitive franchise; 4) Found that it would be an unreasonable refusal to award a competitive franchise if the local franchising authority denied an application based on a new entrant’s refusal to undertake certain unreasonable obligations relating to public, educational, and governmental (“PEG”) and institutional networks (“I-Nets”); and 5) Preempted local laws, regulations, and requirements, including local level-playing-field provisions, to the extent they impose greater restrictions on market entry than the rules adopted herein.
The Commission concluded that although the record allows it to determine generally what constitutes an “unreasonable refusal to award an additional competitive franchise” at the local level, the Commission does not have sufficient information to make such determinations with respect to franchising decisions made at the state level or in compliance with state statutory directives, such as statewide franchising decisions. As a result, the Order addresses only decisions made by county- or municipal-level franchising authorities. The Commission also adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in which it seeks comment on how its findings in the Order should affect existing franchisees, tentatively concludes that the findings should apply to existing franchisees at the time of their next franchise renewal process, and seeks comment on the Commission’s statutory authority to take this action. The Commission will conclude this rulemaking and release an order no later than six months after the release of the Order.
News Release: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-269111A1.doc
Martin Statement: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-269111A2.doc
Copps Statement: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-269111A3.doc
Adelstein Statement: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-269111A4.doc
Tate Statement: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-269111A5.doc
McDowell Statement: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-269111A6.doc

_Coverage_

BELL COMPANIES’ FCC VICTORY MIGHT BE SHORT-LIVED
[SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, AUTHOR: Amy Schatz Amy.Schatz@wsj.com]
Phone companies scored a win at the Federal Communications Commission when the agency agreed to change rules to let them enter the cable-television business faster, but the victory may be short-lived, as congressional Democrats complained and opponents threatened legal action. The FCC, in a 3-2 party-line vote, passed rules that give state and local authorities a 90-day deadline to grant video-franchising agreements to new competitors. The commission also struck down rules requiring that the Bells do more to provide service to all residents in an area than current providers. The FCC action raises potentially significant issues for the Bells, which have persuaded eight states — including California, New Jersey and Texas — to change laws to accelerate entry to the video business. State and local officials say the FCC is trying to usurp their authority, and cable companies say the Bells are getting preferential treatment. The matter looks to be heading for court. Yesterday’s decision may make it more difficult for the Bells to persuade other states to change some rules that are made somewhat moot by the FCC action.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116664369395955925.html?mod=todays_us_page_one
(requires subscription)

* Phone Carriers Win a Skirmish in Cable Wars

(requires registration)

* FCC Vote A Victory For Phone Companies
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/20/AR2006122000779.html

* Telecoms groups gain TV boost
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/e936c23c-9082-11db-a4b9-0000779e2340.html
(requires subscription)

* Phone giants are closer to TV service
http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/money/20061221/1b_franchise21.art.htm

* FCC backs telephone companies in TV fight
http://www.latimes.com/business/printedition/la-fi-fcc21dec21,1,5635193.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-business

* FCC Gives Telcos Big Video Victory
http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6401769.html?display=Breaking+News

* FCC: 90-Day Franchise Shot Clock
http://www.multichannel.com/article/CA6401838.html?display=Breaking+News

* FCC Votes to Ease Hurdles to Cable Competition
http://www.tvweek.com/news.cms?newsId=11265

* NCTA Could Sue FCC Over Franchise Item
http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6401834.html?display=Breaking+News

* Dingell questions FCC authority on cable
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20061220/ap_en_tv/cable_competition

* Markey Says He Will Review FCC Decision
http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6401858.html?display=Breaking+News

* FCC adopts relief for telecom companies planning TV offerings
http://news.com.com/FCC+adopts+relief+for+telecom+companies+planning+TV+offerings/2100-1036_3-6145184.html?tag=nefd.lede

* Divided FCC OKs ‘Shot Clock’ Plan For Awarding Video Franchises
http://www.njtelecomupdate.com/lenya/telco/live/tb-TGRO1166704700067.html

* Why the New FCC Rules May Bring Lawsuits
http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/dec2006/db20061221_189150.htm?chan=top+news_top+news+index_businessweek+exclusives

* Phone firms gain cable TV victory
http://www.ajc.com/services/content/business/stories/2006/12/20/1221bizfcccable.html?cxtype=rss&cxsvc=7&cxcat=6

_Reaction_

* Consumer Group Says FCC Move on Video Competition Risky Without Assurances that Cable Rates Will Fall, Decision Does More Harm Than Good
Consumers Union called the Federal Communications Commission’s decision today to let phone companies begin offering video services without adhering to basic consumer protection requirements a risky move based on only flimsy evidence that consumers will actually benefit from the move. “Consumers are ill-served by the Commission’s decision to let phone companies pick and choose which neighborhoods will get more choice for cable service and which will be left with only their monopoly cable provider, facing both rate hikes and no hope of any alternative,” said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union. “Unless consumers receive assurances from both the FCC and the Bells that cable rates will actually decline for all customers in a market after phone companies begin offering service, FCC’s decision may do more harm than good.”
http://www.hearusnow.org/other/newsroom/tvradiocable/consumersunionsaysfccmoveonvideocompetitionrisky/

* FCC Attacks PEG Funding, Community Media, Congressional Authority
[SOURCE: Alliance for Community Media]
Executive Director Anthony Riddle: “The telephone industry could not get a law passed through the 535 legislators answerable to the public. So they anointed a “Super Legislature” where they only needed three unelected regulators to pass a law. Congress should act quickly to limit the power of activist regulators. The FCC should react to Congress. Congress should not have to react to the FCC. This order will end up losing in court. It is an unconscionable waste of the millions of tax-payers’ dollars which will be wasted on legal fees. The majority of the FCC are mistaking chaos and thuggery for a coherent national communications policy. It will not result in competition, but even more media consolidation. The FCC, in the spirit of Christmas, has given the biggest gift of all to the giant telephone companies while the children of our cities and towns get a lump of coal in their torn stockings.”
http://www.alliancecm.org/blog.php

* FCC Decision on Video Franchising is Detrimental for Local Government
[SOURCE: National League of Cities]
Don Borut, Executive Director, National League of Cities: “We are confounded by today’s decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would systematically block the ability of local governments to protect their citizens, local assets and revenues. It is not in the best interest of America’s taxpaying public; it is not in the best interest of our citizens who own the public rights of way; it is not in the best interest of the widest number of consumers, who, depending on where they live or how much they are willing to spend, may be shut out from the most up-to-date technology by companies seeking to service only the most well-to-do neighborhoods. The cities and towns represented by NLC have urged fairness in the effort to reform telecommunications policy. That did not happen today.”
http://www.nlc.org/Newsroom/Press_Room/13105.cfm

* NATOA Responds to FCC Vote on Jurisdiction and Franchising Authority
[SOURCE: National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors]
NATOA’s Executive Director, Libby Beaty, responded to the news of the vote: “Today the FCC played Scrooge to local governments when they changed the agency from a regulatory to a legislative body. Unfortunately, unlike Scrooge, it’s highly unlikely the FCC will see the error of its way absent court or Congressional intervention. We will look forward to providing them both opportunities.” We will respond to the entirety of the Commission’s order when it is released and available for thorough review.
http://www.natoa.org/

* NCTA Statement
Kyle McSlarrow, President & CEO, National Cable & Telecommunications Association: “The FCC’s pricing survey fails to account for the benefits of bundled pricing, its favorable impact on cable prices, and the greatly increased value of cable services in a digital world. Ignoring these factors makes the pricing survey obsolete on arrival and an unsound basis for policy decisions. On today’s decision on video franchising, it appears that the FCC pared back some of the more troubling proposals that had been floated in recent days. The Commission made crystal clear that its order isn’t a license for AT&T to ignore the franchising process and operate under different rules from its competitors. In addition, the Commission stepped back from pre-empting all state franchising laws, many of which have acknowledged the value to consumers of a level playing field for all competitors. We appreciate the FCC’s commitment to complete action within six months on a further notice to address regulatory parity. But the simple fact is that today’s order doesn’t provide a level playing field, a concept that has been universally supported up until now at federal, state, and local levels. We don’t believe the Commission has the legal authority to establish separate regimes for incumbents and new entrants in today’s highly competitive marketplace.”
http://www.ncta.com/ContentView.aspx?hidenavlink=true&type=reltyp2&contentId=3746

* ACA’s Polka: Martin Misguided
[SOURCE: Multichannel News]
American Cable Association CEO Matthew M. Polka had plenty to say about the Federal Communications Commission’s decision on cable rates and local franchising. On cable rates, Polka said, “The answer is very simple. Who controls the rates of the content on cable, satellite and telco video today? Not the operators, but the media-conglomerate programmers, whose rates and increases far exceed the data reported by the FCC on cable rates. Why are satellite’s rates the same or higher than cable’s? Why did [Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV] just announce a 7.6% increase for January?” On video franchising, Polka said, “These new rules upset the balance of competition, take authority away from local governments and give the Bell companies a free pass on serving all subscribers in a market. Through these rules, the FCC is ratifying the red-lining practice of building out service in only the wealthiest areas.”
http://www.multichannel.com/article/CA6402183.html?display=Breaking+News

* TIA Commends FCC’s Decision to Facilitate Entry into the Video Services Market
The Telecommunications Industry Association has long urged the FCC to impose uniform requirements on local franchise authorities (LFAs) to minimize the adverse effects of the existing local franchise process. TIA believes the commission’s decision today is consistent with its momentum toward a deregulatory framework necessary to increase broadband deployment to all Americans.
http://www.tiaonline.org/business/media/press_releases/2006/PR-122.cfm

* NAB Statement
National Association of Broadcasters Executive Vice President of Media Relations Dennis Wharton: “NAB salutes the FCC for taking decisive action to increase much needed competition to cable monopolies. With today’s action, the Commission has delivered a holiday treat for cable customers who will now have a choice and the ability to avoid rate hikes that run two to four times the annual rate of inflation.”
http://www.nab.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=News_Room&CONTENTID=7542&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm

The PC in the Family Room

netflix.jpgTen years ago, slow dial-up access limited most Internet use to e-mail and text-based web browsing. Now, with over 56 million broadband customers in the United States alone, the experience of watching video online has moved from the computer screen to the television. A wide range of consumer choices have sprung up as a result. Here are just a few ways home computer technology is moving into the family room:

Hardware

Digital video recorders, or DVRs, are really just dedicated processors that do one task: organize and time-shift the viewing experience. Tivo is the most well-known, and later this year Comcast will add Tivo software to their set-top boxes, in addition to their existing DVR service, though it won’t be available locally right away. It’s also possible to use a home PC for the same task, connecting a Mac or a Windows Media Center-equipped system to a home television set.

But that’s a bit complicated for ordinary folks. At this month’s MacWorld conference, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled Apple TV, a set-top box with a 40 GB hard drive that streams movies and other content to digital TVs. It works with the latest generation of big screens, and is equipped with leading edge, high-speed 802.11n wireless. It’s also optimized for movies purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Slingbox made a splash in 2005 with a candy bar-shaped unit that lets viewers watch their TV or Tivo anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the company unveiled Slingcatcher, which does the Slingbox trick in reverse, sending video from a computer to a television. It also features Clip+Sling, a video sharing utility sure to excite prospective YouTube impresarios.

Content

Following YouTube’s runaway success, full episodes of prime time shows like CSI, American Idol and Grey’s Anatomy are now online, albeit with must-see commercials. Many of the same programs are offered uninterrupted on iTunes – for a price, typically $1.99 per episode. MSNBC’s web site shows ad-supported highlights from their news shows, as does Fox News; CNN has the ad-free, subscription-based “Pipeline.”

The emerging market is online movies, with NetFlix, which disrupted the video store world, leading the charge. The company, which pioneered “no return date” DVDs, recently started letting customers with certain types of accounts watch up to 18 hours of movies online. Competition may eventually come from long-time rival Blockbuster, but they’re busy trying to cut into the NetFlix rent-by-mail business.

Seattle-base Reel Time Rentals recently launched a movie streaming service; their selection doesn’t rival NetFlix, but it is technically impressive, with surprisingly good sound and picture quality. With a few copyright deals, Reel Time could be a factor in the online rental business.

Competition Fuels Local TV Growth

fpcomcast.jpgDigital convergence – the media trinity of voice, video and broadband – could be coming soon to Claremont, Newport, Springfield and other towns. Two companies, Comcast and FairPoint Communications, recently revealed plans to offer a combination of digital television, telephone and Internet access to their newly acquired customers in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.

Comcast is already making their presence felt; FairPoint must wait for shareholder and government approval of their merger with Verizon before going forward. Once that happens, Comcast’s local cable television franchise, a historic monopoly in the years it was run by Time Warner and Adelphia, may face serious competition for the first time. To prepare, the company is readying a system upgrade that’s causing both excitement and consternation.

As the new year approached, cable customers began noticing the effects from Comcast’s takeover of the former Adelphia system in Claremont and Springfield, along with Time Warner’s properties in Newport and Sunapee. The company, the largest cable and broadband provider in the country, announced rate increases averaging three percent for most of their television services. A few new channels appeared, and several disappeared – including the West Coast feeds of premium programming from HBO, Showtime and Starz. Many complained that they were now paying more and receiving less.

A company representative explained that some of the deleted content was redundant, and that customers can expect more new programming in February. Comcast spokesperson Marc Goodman cited an aggressive growth strategy for the coming months. On demand offerings in particular, he said, “represent a dramatic expansion of what’s been available,” including “over 8,000 programs … more than 90 percent of which are free.” High definition content will also increase, including some new channels.

In terms of Internet service, the cutover of Adelphia’s broadband system to Comcast had its share of glitches, including lost emails and other hiccups, but it’s running smoothly now. Comcast’s system improvements include content partnerships with McAfee Internet Security, Snapfish, Rhapsody and others, as well as plans for “PowerBoost,” a flexible, broadband-on-demand service. Pricing, however, did not change.

Rounding out the company’s so-called “Triple Play” is Comcast Digital Voice, a telephone plan that will be available mid-year. It’s a Voice Over Internet (VOIP) service, similar to Vonage and Skype, featuring unlimited long distance calls to the U.S. and Canada. Goodman said the voice/data/TV combination package will cost $99 per month, an introductory rate that will likely rise to $132 after one year.

“We’re delivering convergence today,” says Goodman. “A customer that has digital voice service will have an option in the future to see Caller ID on their TV screen,” as well as Internet-based, unified e-mail and voicemail.

Their advantage may be short-lived once FairPoint Communications completes its merger with Verizon’s Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire wireline business. If the deal is approved, the company will grow from 300,000 current voice and data lines to nearly 2 million.

When the purchase was announced January 17, the company downplayed its convergence plans. FairPoint executive Walt Leach told the Boston Globe, “clearly, video will be a consideration, but we don’t want to get distracted by that.”

Two days later, however, a report in the Manchester Union Leader quoted CEO Gene Johnson promising television via Internet Protocol over DSL (IPTV) as part of their plans. In Washington state, he said, “We are very effectively competing against Comcast in that market.”

“We are offering it today, we have found it has a good acceptance rating,” FairPoint Chief Operating Office Peter Nixon said Friday. “We believe we understand the technology, the programming, and how to integrate it with voice and data.”

Yelm, Washington is currently the only FairPoint franchise offering IPTV service, though another, in Cass County, Missouri, will become operational later this year. The Yelm system features 145 channels and includes on-demand services. It also provides the town with a community access channel for local programming.

Yelm’s FairPoint lineup of local affiliate channels from PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox is more similar to Comcast than satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network. In particular, Dish and DirecTV offer no local weather forecasts, few New Hampshire stations and no access for citizen programmers or coverage of municipal meetings.

FairPoint media relations representative Jennifer Sharpe cautioned Friday that customers shouldn’t expect an exact match. “We’re a year away from this deal being closed, and we have a lot of integration to do. We can’t compare with the Northwest. It may be completely different.“

“The general approach is we truly like to become a partner within the community,” said Peter Nixon. “Where we can, we try to include that same approach in these types of offerings,” including community access and as much local programming as possible.

Verizon attempted to offer IPTV to customers in New Hampshire, but was stifled by regulatory requirements mandating that separate agreements be reached with each city or town operating a system. “That is the requirement, and that’s how it has to be done,” Nixon said Friday. “Therefore, it does affect speed and pace of rollout.”

Nixon indicated that FairPoint would like to see that regulatory climate change. Where possible, he said, “we would want work with the town and the state to see if there’s a different way to do that.” However, said Nixon, “the franchise dynamics may be completely different a year from now.”

The company is well positioned to work through whatever difficulties may exist. “We’re already very heavily centered in New England. This is a natural extension of what we’ve been wanting to do,” said Nixon. “It’s an area we’re familiar with. We’ve already committed to making investment in the infrastructure, and we’re already familiar with the regulators and legislators.”

“It’s a perfect fit,” he said.