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How's It Going?

Congress has been considering undoing the law that allows analog television broadcasts to continue unless more than 85% of households in a market have access to the programming of all of the digital broadcasts in their market. They have not mentioned the other 85%.

Press releases from the Consumer Electronics Association, the FCC, the NAB, and even the National Cable & Telecommunications Association give the impression that the transition from analog television broadcasting to digital is proceeding with lighting speed.

CEA: "Sales of digital television (DTV) products continued to sizzle in August."

FCC: "The FCC has worked in a partnership with every sector of the television industry to bring the benefits of high-definition and digital television to millions of Americans."

NAB: "Today, there are more than 1400 DTV stations on the air, operating in 209 television markets and serving more than 99.7% of US television households."

NCTA: "Consumers in 177 markets across the U.S.--including all of the top 100--can now receive HDTV over cable."

That's fantastic, right? Perhaps it is. The root of the word "fantastic" is, after all, fantasy.

Consider cable. Not all systems in a market carry HDTV, and not all subscribers on those systems have ordered HDTV cable service or have HDTV sets. Of the 1400 digital TV stations mentioned by the NAB, just 454 were carried by any cable systems as of September 27.

As of November 7, only 636 U.S. television stations were licensed to transmit digitally, according to the FCC's database, and only licensed stations (or those on program-test authority) may transmit at full power. There is HDTV programming broadcast in prime time, but on weekends, when shoppers might buy TV sets, there's virtually none.

How many people receive digital TV broadcasts? There are no good publicly available figures. Several telephone surveys at the end of last year found that from 20 to 30% of U.S. households said they were watching HDTV.

There's just one problem: The number of HDTV displays manufactured worldwide to that point was only a small fraction of that number.

CEA releases weekly figures for sales of what it calls "digital televisions." In the first 42 weeks of 2004, about 3.2 million were sold. The sales are factory sales to dealers, not consumer sales. In the same period, roughly 17.8 million TV sets that were not characterized as "digital television" were sold to dealers. That, more than eight years after the first digital TV stations went on the air in the U.S., represents about 85%.

A couple of cautions are in order. The CEA factory sales figures for "digital televisions" don't include plasma or LCD sales. In August, the factory sales of "digital televisions" plus plasma and LCD represented about 21% of all television sales. That means four of five TVs then sold by factories to U.S. dealers were not "digital televisions."

What is a CEA "digital television"? You might be surprised to learn that it need not have a single digital circuit in it. HDTV displays and digital-broadcast receivers are counted as "digital televisions," but so are other displays that can handle no more than progressive-scan standard-definition and have no digital-reception capability.

How many actual digital-broadcast television receivers have been sold to dealers? The last time CEA released a figure was on February 23, before the July 1 FCC "tuner mandate" kicked in. Cumulative factory sales to that point, starting in the last millennium, had reached 1.2 million. If every one was sold to a different household, then just over 1% would have had equipment for receiving off-air digital broadcasts.

Happy holidays!