The Long-Awaited, Highly Valuable Label

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) made an interesting announcement on March 15 of this year. It was about a label to be placed on TV sets that are able to receive only NTSC RF transmissions.

"Notice: this TV has only an 'analog' broadcast tuner so will require a converter box after February 17, 2009 to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna, because of the nation's transition to digital broadcasting on that date, as required by Federal law. (It should continue to work as before with cable and satellite TV systems, gaming consoles, VCRs, DVD players and similar products.)"

It will, of course, take some time before the new label begins to appear, and the effort is strictly voluntary. The label will be extremely valuable. That is to say it will be extremely valuable to collectors of such ephemera due to its rarity.

As of March 1 of next year, all new TV sets equipped with tuners (as well as all other TV-tuner-equipped devices, such as VCRs, DVD recorders and even some computers) are to include digital-reception circuitry if they are shipped interstate or imported to the U.S. That's not a voluntary recommendation; it's the law. As of March 1 of this year, the law already applied to all TVs 25-inch and larger.

So the label, whenever it finally appears, will have limited application. It will be found only on TVs 24 inches and smaller that are shipped after the label's introduction but before March 1 of next year by brands that volunteer to use it.

CEA can argue that they waited to come up with a label because until recently there was no certainty as to when analog TV would be shut down. But there's still no certainty.

As this is being written, the legality of the "law" containing the 2009 date is being challenged because, in a section unrelated to television, the House of Representatives and the Senate actually passed two substantively different versions of the document. Congress could simply agree to fix that little problem, but the bill barely passed in the first place; the Vice President had to break the tie in the Senate and a single reversed vote would have led to a tie in the House as well.

Congress can also easily change its mind on the issue again. It would be "again" because an earlier law called for analog television to be shut down at the end of this year. The new "law" changes the previous date.

With minor alterations (including the deletion of the cutoff date), a label like the one CEA has proposed could have been applied long ago to warn consumers of a coming transition. How long ago?

The first law calling for analog television to be shut down was passed in 1997. That was already after the FCC had announced an analog TV cutoff date in its digital-television rules. And the roots of an analog TV shutdown go back even farther.

When the FCC began looking into what was then called "advanced television," several proposals offered systems compatible with existing broadcasts in the same way that NTSC color offered compatibility with existing black-&-white transmissions. In March of 1990, however, the commission decided that advanced television should be in its own incompatible channels, so that there would be a transition to HDTV, and the older channels could eventually be recovered.

That was 16 years before CEA's label announcement. In 1996, almost ten years before CEA's label announcement, the first U.S. digital TV stations went on the air.

So those who have been following the digital terrestrial television broadcast transition have long been anticipating an analog TV shutdown. Consumers, unfortunately, have not. There has never been any label warning them of the impending change as they bought analog TV sets in the last ten years. There's still none.

How long will those analog TV sets last? When the FCC's staff considered the issue last year, they came up with an analog cutoff date that would be in 2032 if it were based on how long consumers keep their TVs. They simply added a 25-year product life to the 100%-digital-reception mandate that becomes effective in March of next year.

If Congress gets worried about consumers losing television service in 2009, they could change the date yet again. And, if that happens, the label will be wrong.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.