FCC demanding TV tuners become digital by 2007
WASHINGTON — Within five years, all but the smallest new televisions must be able to receive digital broadcast signals, federal regulators ordered Thursday, pushing the TV industry another step closer to the elusive promise of consistently vivid pictures and crisp sound.
Television makers said they would go to court in hopes of blocking the Federal Communications Commission's decision to require digital tuners in sets sold in the United States. The manufacturers said the tuners would add $250 to the price of the average TV even though cable and satellite viewers don't need them.
FCC commissioners, who approved the order 3-1, predicted the cost of tuners would drop dramatically as they are mass produced.
The tuners will become necessary to receive broadcast programming over the airwaves after the nation switches from analog to digital signals, which is expected to happen within a few years.
The FCC wants to ensure that anyone who buys a TV can take it home, plug it in and receive local stations without subscribing to a cable service or buying an extra set-top box for digital signals.
"Someday, analog broadcasting will cease," said FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell. "When that time comes, consumers will expect their televisions to go on working in the digital world just as they do today."
Consumers with older TVs will be able to buy set-top boxes if they want to receive broadcast stations. The boxes cost several hundred dollars, though the price could fall as demand increases.
Congress has set a goal of December 2006 for the switchover, but the FCC has been frustrated by reluctance from broadcasters, local TV stations, cable systems and television makers to dive into the costly process.
When the switch is complete, broadcasters must return their analog channels to the government for other uses, such as wireless telephones.
The vote marked a turning point for the FCC from prodding to ordering action. Some commissioners indicated they were interested in tackling the cable industry's role in the changeover next.
In addition to improved pictures, digital television offers a range of new possibilities to broadcasters, such as sending multiple programs over the same channel or offering video games, the Internet or other interactive services.
The biggest initial beneficiaries of digital television are the 15 percent of TV owners who still receive their shows through antennae. They will get improved reception, with no more fuzzy pictures.
But for cable and satellite subscribers, the greatest benefit of digital transmission is likely to be high-definition television, or HDTV, which offers lifelike sound and picture quality but requires a special TV.
HDTV-ready sets can run from $800 to $2,000, but prices are expected to drop if the service becomes more popular and more sets are sold.
Although many consumers equate digital television with HDTV, there is no guarantee broadcasters and cable companies will make HDTV widely available after the switch to digital.
The FCC is phasing in the tuner requirement, starting with the largest, most expensive televisions. Televisions 36 inches or larger must have the tuners by July 2004, while most smaller sets will get them by July 2007.
Sets with screens smaller than 13 inches are exempt.
Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said the TV set requirement was necessary to move forward the switch to digital TV. Without the rule, she said, "the transition remains stalled."
Commissioners noted digital tuners will be needed to give people access to digital broadcasts from local stations not carried by cable or satellite.
The dissenting vote came from Commissioner Kevin Martin, who said the vast majority of TV viewers already receive cable or satellite feeds and therefore don't need the digital tuners.
"I believe the cost of this particular proposal outweighs the benefits," Martin said.
The Consumer Electronics Association, representing TV makers, calls the requirement a "TV tax" and says it would cost the industry and consumers about $7 billion.
"We believe the government should not tell consumers what to buy," said the group's president, Gary Shapiro.
Broadcasters applauded the measure.
ABC has made a "huge investment" in digital TV and beginning this fall, all of ABC's new scripted entertainment programs will be available in HDTV, said Preston Padden, executive vice president for governmental relations at ABC.
More than 400 local stations across the nation are broadcasting digital signals, FCC officials said.
Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, predicted the new rule would cost consumers and won't lead to increased availability of HDTV programming.
"It's so easy to whack it to the consumer when the other two pieces of the industry, cable and broadcasters, aren't doing their part," Cooper said.