The Sugar-Date Fairy

On May 1, 2002, almost 1,300 U.S. commercial television stations are due to be broadcasting digitally. There won't be. Never mind the reasons why. It's not nice to point fingers so soon after the holiday season.
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On May 1, 2002, almost 1,300 U.S. commercial television stations are due to be broadcasting digitally. There won't be. Never mind the reasons why. It's not nice to point fingers so soon after the holiday season.

--At midnight on December 31, 2006, all U.S. analog television broadcasts are supposed to cease, unless there are certain conditions occurring. One of those conditions is at least 15 percent of households in any given market having neither DTV receivers nor access to the programming of all the DTV stations in that market via such sources as cable and satellite. On May 2, 2001, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) announced the sale of its millionth "DTV product." CEA figures are for sales to dealers, not consumers, but even so, a million DTV sets sounds impressive.

CEA correctly defines DTV as having to do with the digital television transmission system adopted by the FCC. Unfortunately, CEA doesn't use its own definition for its DTV-product announcements. The vast majority of the million had no DTV-reception capability whatsoever; a substantial number couldn't display any form of HDTV, and 68 percent of them had ordinary TV-shaped (4:3) screens.

Later, CEA provided another figure. From the beginning of time (1998 if you prefer) through June 30 of last year, a total of 150,003 actual U.S. DTV receivers÷products capable of picking up a DTV broadcast, whether integrated into a display or as a set-top box÷had been sold by factories. In a country with more than 100 million television households and close to 300 million TV sets, that's not very many÷not even a blip.

Some people think a law requiring DTV-reception capability in all TV sets is the way to have more than 85 percent of U.S. homes equipped by the end of 2006. There could be such a law. In 1962, Congress passed a law requiring all TV sets sold from 1964 on to be able to tune in UHF channels. In 1990, it passed a law requiring all TV sets 13 inches or larger sold from mid-1993 on to be able to decode closed captions.

There would likely be challenges to a DTV-reception-capability law from TV set manufacturers. There are also questions of what constitutes DTV-reception capability. Would what was available in first-generation DTV receivers suffice? Is current capability good enough? After all, the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) is considering revising its DTV standard to deal with more-robust transmission schemes.

Of course, there were similar issues in adding UHF capability. When the first all-channel TVs came out in 1964, tuning in a UHF station required, in the words of TV critic Marvin Kitman, "the fingers of a safecracker." Later FCC receiver regulations improved matters considerably.

Then there's cost. Neither UHF tuning nor closed-caption decoding (nor its offspring, the V-chip) involved as much additional circuitry as does DTV reception. As this is being written, a national consumer electronics retail chain is advertising a five-inch TV for just $19.95 and a 19-inch color TV for under $80. The lowest-cost DTV set-top receivers sell for hundreds of dollars.

Suppose all the issues are worked out, however, and Congress immediately passes a law requiring DTV-reception capability. The law probably wouldn't go into effect for at least two years. That's 2004.

In the year 2000, a little over 30 million TV sets (including TV/VCR combos) were sold to U.S. dealers. As this is being written, 2001 is running about 13 percent behind. But suppose 30 million sets a year are still sold (despite increased prices), and every one of them includes DTV reception capability, and every one goes to a different TV household, and the number of DTV households remains constant.

Then, if all of the above occurred, there would be fewer than 15 percent of U.S. households without DTV-reception capability by the end of 2006. Whether all of the others could actually get reliable pictures and sounds from any broadcast DTV signals is the subject of a different fairy tale.