Local Rhythms – Comcast News

anyplay-p-dvr-docked-small.jpgThere’s nothing like healthy competition to motivate a company to do better. For proof, look no further than Comcast.

These days, the one-time cable monopoly faces relentless encroachment by satellite providers. Verizon’s sale of their New England properties to FairPoint Communications will likely be approved, which promises to add Internet-based television to the mix.

So, at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Comcast unveiled a flurry of moves designed to attract new customers – and keep old ones.

How about a cable-powered video iPod? With a 60 GB hard drive, the Comcast AnyPlay Portable DVR is a nifty hybrid of a digital video recorder (DVR) and a portable DVD player. The device allows for on-the-go viewing of shows recorded off the Comcast cable system. Made by Panasonic, it should be available next year.

Expected in stores a bit sooner are Panasonic high definition televisions equipped with “tru2way” technology. The sets allow plug and play access to the full range of Comcast services – no box required.

Comcast also announced plans for tru2way set top boxes. This equipment, manufactured by Samsung and Panasonic, leverages DOCSIS (data over cable) technology that will ultimately pave the way for direct viewing of content from web sites like YouTube, as well as downloading of movies and other programming.

The long-awaited Comcast/TiVo marriage was finally consummated recently in Boston. Area customers with Scientific Atlanta boxes, however, will have to wait until later this year for the bugs to be worked out of the software update before the ubiquitous DVR technology becomes available here.

That’s one of the problems of living in a so-called “outer market” like northern New England. You have to wait forever for the good stuff.

Sometimes, it’s lonely in the sticks.

If we’re not complaining about dropped cell phone calls, we’re wondering when we can get our hands of all the cool technology that’s shown on the G4 Channel.

I’m beginning to think that my children’s children will see high definition local channels on the Dish Network before I ever do.

Heck, I can’t even buy an iPhone unless I lie about my address. How fair is that?

Forget about clean air and water. Who cares about low traffic density? Give me gadgets!

Oh, well, we have a great live music scene to enjoy. To wit:

Thursday: Draa Hobbs & Peter Concilio, Elixir – Hobbs gigged with a long list of jazz luminaries, did a stint in Al Alessi’s band, held forth at Oona’s before the fire, and most recently helped singer-songwriter Lisa McCormick with her newest album. His soft touch reminds me of Wes Montgomery or George Benson. Bassist Concilio is a fixture in several area combos, including the Emily Lanier Jazz Ensemble (the singer’s post-New Kind of Blue band).

Friday: Iron Box, Imperial Lounge – A Claremont band in the mold of Television or Smashing Pumpkins, Iron Box did well at last summer’s Whaleback show (some of that performance is up on their MySpace page). I’m impressed by their commitment to playing original material. Songs like “Leave the Day” and “Stop the World” possess an edgy mid-90’s melodic quality that you can both dance to and drown in.

Saturday: Saxton’s River Smackdown, Boccelli’s – One year ago, Bellows Falls’ renaissance began as Josh Maiocco and Jesse Peters shared the stage in this auction hall reconfigured for music. Since that time, the restaurant by the canal has upped the ante with many great performers like Nashville chanteuse Diana Jones, who plays next week. Tonight’s show is an anniversary celebration by two of the area’s best original voices.

Sunday: Super Bowl, Arizona – Let’s face it, if anyone’s going to be paying attention to music today it will be during Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers halftime show. It’s all about football – for the majority, Tom Brady is the man, and the Patriots are the team. To those few who grew up watching Phil Simms and the Giants on Vermont’s Channel 3, I offer early condolences. The song of the day is, naturally, Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Go Pats!

Tuesday: Irish Traditional Sessions, Salt Hill Pub – This is the perfect after work destination, with a 6:30 start and the always interesting improvisations of Chris Stevens, Roger Burridge, and Dave Loney. An occasional top notch guest can up the talent quotient, turning the weekly session into a cross between open mike night and a Celtic hard court basketball game (with fiddles and bodhráns).

Wednesday: Chris O’Brien, Langdon Street Café – This singer-songwriter is worth the long drive to Montpelier, with talent to match his pedigree (Dar Williams, a family friend, taught him his first guitar chords). O’Brien’s gift for wordplay brings a smile, his easygoing, Steve Forbert-like voice is smooth as a cold pint in August – and he can charm a crowd. Chris is definitely one to watch.

Comcast Must Hate Music

Cable monopolist Comcast just announced a change to the local (New Hampshire/Vermont)  HD programming lineup, effective June 26.

HDNet, the Mark Cuban-created source for Arrested Development reruns and great live music shows like the V Festival, True Music and concert specials like the Chicago/Earth, Wind & Fire set a few months back, is out.  In its place is the stodgy A&E HD network.

Additionally, HDNet Movies was kicked to the curb, to be replaced by National Geographic Magazine’s high definition offering.  I guess one Discovery Channel, not to mention similar programing on PBS, wasn’t enough.

I’m pretty sure Comcast hates music; every day it seems another outlet disappears and a lifestyle station takes its place.   Oh, there’s lots of Ashley Tisdale and Kanye West videos (and “cribs” tours, no doubt) available on demand, but for anyone with an attention span longer than 8 or 9 minutes, there’s not much left.

It’s bad enough that Comcast’s web site, and their latest hype offering TVplanner, can’t keep track of their own stations when it comes to music.  Go there and filter on HD and you’ll find channel 771 is the home of MTV-HD, featuring vintage VH1 Storytellers episodes form the likes of Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen as well as 3-hour blocks of HD videos.

One problem – it’s not on 771, nor can it be found on any other Comcast channel.

I do hope FairPoint’s acquisition of Verizon is approved.  Local television service could use a shot in the arm.

Local Rhythms – Don’t Be Such A Spud

activitytv.jpgI may never leave the house again.

Late last week, Comcast completed a promised upgrade to their On Demand television system. Customers with digital set-top boxes now have twice as many reasons to stay on the couch. Movie selection has doubled – I counted over 190 free films, though some, like “Sahara” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” are so old they’re practically in the public domain.

The IFC offering is more cutting-edge, with brand-new indie films that open on TV and theaters on the same day. But these movies will cost you $5.95 each, though like all pay-per-view content, they can be watched for up to 24 hours.

It’s not all good. The on demand music is overstuffed with Beyonce, 50 Cent and Ne-Yo, and doesn’t excite me much. It may be hip-hop nation, but I live in a classic rock county. Some other new stuff is just silly, like On-Demand Dating, which has 30-second video ads from lonely men and women. Try E-Harmony, kids.

Move beyond that, however, and there’s a bevy of programming that may get you out of your chair. Activity TV, found on the Kids menu, offers lessons in juggling, puppet making, cooking and origami. This programming is also available on the activitytv.tv web site.

On Sports, there’s an exercise channel with lots of 10-minute workouts, as well as the youthful SportSkool, which features how-to demonstrations in snowboarding and skiing (there’s a nifty little Bode Miller profile), along with baseball, soccer and skateboarding lessons from pros like Mia Hamm and Dontrelle Willis.

On the Music menu, aspiring axe players can take guitar lessons. Star with the basics, move on to Barre chords (I didn’t know it was spelled that way either), and then apply your newfound knowledge to classics like “Pride and Joy” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

If you’d rather sing than play, the music channel also has Karaoke TV. The song selection, with a bit of country, rock and pop, is a more diverse than the music videos. Don McLean’s “American Pie” was a regular family experience, with my wife and daughter joining in on the chorus, and laughing heartily at me as I tried to follow the bouncing lyric ball. There’s everything from “More Than A Feeling” to “Baby’s Got Back.”

It’s a great way to watch television without being a couch potato. If you’d rather go out on the town, however, here are some choices:

Thursday: Tim Harrison, Middle Earth – This Canadian folksinger reminds me a lot of fellow countryman Gordon Lightfoot. They both cover much of the same territory in their songs: the great and unforgiving wilderness, small quiet country towns, and geese – lots of geese. Harrison has won the attention of some of music’s more discerning ears, among them Daniel Lanois, who’s worked with Dylan and U2 (and produced Harrison’s last album).

Friday: Last Kid Picked, Electra This Newport band recently celebrated 10 years together; tonight, they head to West Lebanon. Give the litigious climate in the music business lately, I wonder if they’ll be looking over their shoulders when they play “It’s A Long Way To the Top?” AC/DC, after all, was one of the plaintiffs in that recently Vail nightclub suit.

Saturday: Hexerei & Transcent, Imperial Lounge – Music lives on Washington Street, despite the flight of Bistro Nouveau to greener pastures. Hexerei is very close to releasing their third album; Transcent’s combination of passion and technical proficiency so impressed me recently, I managed to garble their lead singer’s name in my review. For the record, it’s Mike Boucher.

Sunday: Spookie Daly Pride, Pickle Barrel – A raucous four-piece band from Boston that combines elements of hip-hop with loose, fun rock and roll. They remind me of Oingo Boingo before the movie soundtracks, or a caffeinated Squirrel Nut Zippers. For a clue of how ubiquitous they are, they’ve opened for everyone from Bela Fleck to Busta Rhymes.

Monday: Bob Weir & Ratdog, Capitol Center – The Grateful Dead side project that evolved into a full-time gig for Weir, though long-time bassist Rob Wasserman is gone (the two still play as a duo every now and then). With classic Dead songs like “Throwing Stones” and “Truckin’” combined with solo gems – “Cassidy,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Playing in the Band,” to name but a few – this should be a fine show.

Tuesday: Longford Row, Salt hill Pub – The members of this Burlington-based Irish trio, led by Gerry Feenan of Trinity, bartered tickets to the Saw Doctors’ Lebanon Opera House show in exchange for their services tonight. With any lucky, they’ll be able to serenade the objects of their adoration later. The band stopped by for a pint or two the last time they were in town. This set marks the resumption of the much-loved weekly Irish Sessions, though the next one will begin earlier.

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.

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.

Comcast Raises Rates, Reduces Service

comcast-logo.jpgArea cable customers no doubt received a few PR missives from Comcast in the wake of their purchase of the local, and recently bankrupt, Adelphia franchise. Over the past few months, Comcast also sent sheepish notification of a rate increase, buried at the bottom of a letter towards the end of November.

What they didn’t tell customers is that as they switch accounts over to Comcast software, huge chunks of programming are disappearing. All West Coast premium feeds are gone. Fox Soccer Channel and perhaps 25-20 other channels are also missing.

So in other words, if you’re a Comcast customer, you’ll be paying more and getting less.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Suddenly, the Sunday paper ads for Dish Network are looking better and better. This move has also given me a nastier attitude about the family of greedheads who drove Adelphia into the ground.