Happy Holiday Hoax

A huge consumer fraud is being perpetrated on the

American public. It relates to digital television, but there are many things it is not.

It is not the "broadcast flag" approved by the FCC last month. If its detractors are to be believed, the flag will add to the cost of consumer products, possibly reduce some functionality, and achieve no additional content protection for producers. That last element might be a fraud perpetrated on studios, networks, and broadcasters, but it's not something that should cause viewers to lose sleep.

It is not the slow pace of the digital broadcast transition. Given that fewer than 1% of U.S. households have digital terrestrial television receivers, it cannot be the case that many bought one waiting for the stations to come on the air. Similarly, any consumer-noticeable flaws in the U.S. digital transmission standard would simply have caused receivers to be returned.

It is not the crazy use of the phrase "DTV product" to describe TV sets that have nothing digital in them. That has certainly confused the FCC but, to the average consumer, the term "digital television" is probably as comprehensible as "velocity modulation." If it looks good, who cares why?

It is not such confusing labels as "HDTV-Ready," "HDTV-Capable," and "HDTV Built-In" on TV sets that will perform equally well when receiving HDTV via a cable TV set-top box. Similarly, it's not the application of the term "HDTV" to anything from 480p to only 1920 x 1080 by various organizations. Different TV sets offer different performance for ordinary analog broadcasts. Why not accept different performance levels for HDTV?

It is not aspect ratio confusion, although a reasonable case for fraud could be made against those selling 5:3 (15:9) LCD displays as 16:9. Bad as that fraud is, it doesn't affect that many consumers. There could be some fraud associated with the $250,000 TV set introduced this year, but if so, it, too, didn't affect very many buyers.

It's not the FCC mandate to require digital broadcast reception capability starting July 1 of next year. That will certainly affect many consumers. They'll have to pay more for TV sets (or give up tuners and buy monitors). If they use cable or satellite, the cost of the digital broadcast reception circuitry will be a total waste, but that's also true for NTSC tuners for viewers connecting their TVs to set-top boxes via audio and video connections.

By July 1, 2007, if all goes according to plan, every 13-inch and larger TV set and tuner-equipped television recorder will have built-in digital broadcast reception capability. At that time, the fraud will be almost dead.

The fraud is being perpetrated against consumers buying ordinary TV sets. There were about 32 million sold in the U.S. last year plus another 14 million VCRs. They are considered "durable goods," products that are supposed to last a long time.

A consumer buying an "HDTV-capable" TV--or one with velocity modulation--expects it to work for many years. But the FCC and Congress say analog television is to be shut down soon--no more than three years from now.

Go to a TV dealer or, if you're too lazy, browse some online shopping sites on the Web. You'll see many references to HDTV and digital TV associated with some TV sets. Some of them might even be accurate. But will any TV or VCR be marked with a sign indicating that it might stop working on January 1, 2007?

Best Buy advertised a 13-inch TV/VCR combo last month for less than $110. Circuit City had a 20-inch TV for under $90. Toys ‘R' Us advertised a CD/AM/FM/TV boom box for under $50. Did any of them advise purchasers that they had just three years of life left--unless they bought a digital adapter for--how much? More than the cost of the original purchase?

Imagine what it would be like if, on January 1, 2007, all filling stations stopped selling gasoline and offered only diesel fuel instead. The government would surely warn car buyers many years in advance.

Of course, cars cost more than TV sets. The most expensive TV, after all, is only $250,000.