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By Any Other Name

On October 4, the FCC launched an initiative to educate consumers about DTV. Their new website, www.dtv.gov, says, “If you buy a DTV monitor (without an integrated tuner), you will need a standalone tuner, cable set-top box, or satellite set-top box to watch DTV.” The same week, Sears advertised Sony’s KE-42M1 plasma TV and noted in big red letters that it had a “built-in tuner.”

So, can that set display digital TV? Try going to Sony’s website to find out. One part states, “tuner required for HD reception,” another notes that the model includes “built-in speakers, pedestal and...tuner.”

To be fair, the ellipsis in the last sentence replaces the term “NTSC.” The number of consumers who know what NTSC means is a different issue.

Perhaps the best question to ask is, “What is a tuner?” The simplest answer is that it is something or someone that tunes. Whether it’s a piano tuner or a radio tuner, a tuner selects frequencies.

Certainly, there are different types of tuners. No one would confuse a piano tuner with a radio tuner. But all tuners involve the selection of frequencies--all except one.

The FCC has issued a “tuner mandate.” Starting July 1 of this year, 50% of TVs 36 inches or larger were to include a digital TV tuner. Next July 1, it’s 100% of those and 50% of the 25- to 35-inch sets. July 1, 2006, it’s 100% of TVs 25 inches and larger. July 1 of 2007, it’s all TVs 13 inches or larger and other TV-receiving products, such as VCRs and DVD recorders.
There is one big loophole. Any of those TV sets or products that don’t include analog TV-reception capability need not add digital. In other words, only products that already have tuners are required to add “tuners.”

Sony has sold plasma TVs both with and without tuners. Their PFM-42B1 does not include a tuner. Sears called attention to the fact that the KE-42M1 does include a tuner. But the set does not have digital TV broadcast reception capability. Sony’s KDE-42XBR950 has both a tuner and digital TV broadcast reception capability. It uses the same tuner for both analog and digital broadcasts.

For analog broadcasts, the tuner feeds the selected channel to an NTSC demodulator. For digital, the tuner feeds the selected channel to an 8-VSB demodulator, which, in turn, feeds MPEG-2 and AC-3 decoders, as described by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC).

Although the first ATSC standard was for analog ghost cancellation, there is no ATSC associated with ordinary analog-only TV sets. There is no 8-VSB associated with them nor is there any MPEG-2 or AC-3. In fact, other than for closed captions, ordinary analog TV sets have no decoders at all.

Had the FCC chosen to say “ATSC decoder” or “digital decoder” instead of “tuner” there would have been no question about the meaning of the Sears ad. The KE-42M1 has a tuner; it has no ATSC decoder.

The FCC instead took its cue from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). They more accurately use the term “tuner” to refer to a standalone box that includes MPEG-2 and AC-3 decoders, an 8-VSB demodulator, and, yes, a tuner.

CEA originally defined “digital television” to refer to the system of digital terrestrial television (DTT) transmission adopted by the FCC. Then they changed the definition of a “digital television” to be something with DTT reception, something that can handle at least 480-line progressively scanned video signals, or both.
Now the FCC is “educating” consumers that a tuner isn’t really a tuner except when it is. Clear?