Appeals court lets DTV tuner mandate stand

A U.S. appeals court upheld an FCC mandate requiring television receiver manufacturers to install tuners that can receive digital broadcast signals in all new sets starting next summer.

The tuner initiative, passed by the FCC in August 2002, was designed to help terrestrial broadcasters transition to digital transmission. Critics contend it will do the opposite, driving up the costs of TV sets in an era when about 13 percent of American households continue to receive over-the-air broadcasts.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), lobbyists for TV set manufacturers such as Sony and LG Electronics’ Zenith brand, had challenged the rules, arguing that the FCC lacked the authority to impose such a rule. The group also argued that the order was arbitrary, and that adding digital tuners would raise the price of television sets by as much as $250 each.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia not only found that the FCC had the authority, but also that the mandate "would help break the logjam" toward DTV even though the vast majority of current TV viewers receive their television signals from cable and satellite subscription services.

"This will make the purchase of DTV equipment more attractive to consumers," Judge John G. Roberts said in the decision for the three-judge panel that heard the case. "Broadcasters are unwilling to provide more DTV programming because most viewers do not own DTV equipment, and the lack of attractive DTV programming makes consumers reluctant to invest in more DTV equipment."

Roberts wrote that "widespread ability among consumers to receive DTV signals is a prerequisite to meeting Congress' 2006 target date for the completion of DTV conversion and the cessation of analog broadcasting."

Television broadcasters are supposed to give up their existing analog airwaves either by the end of 2006 or when the penetration rate for digital television reaches 85 percent. Few believe that will happen, and Congress has refused attempts to set a hard deadline.

"This will ensure that consumers are able to enjoy high-quality digital broadcast programming without the hassle and expense of hooking up a separate set-top box," said FCC Chairman Michael Powell after the ruling

Under the rule, TV receiver manufacturers will have to include digital tuners in half of televisions with screens 36 inches or larger by July, 2004. Digital tuners will be phased into smaller sets over the next three years.

"CEA fully intends to follow the law," said spokeswoman Jenny Miller. "What will be interesting now will be the response of broadcasters and other DTV industries in promoting antenna reception and providing compelling and ample programming."

The CEA, Miller said, hasn't yet ruled out an appeal of the decision.

Sinclair Broadcasting Group, owners of 62 TV stations in 39 markets and a proponent of minimum tuner standards to ensure reception of over-the-air DTV signals, issued a statement applauding the decision and said it has filed comments with the FCC suggesting specifics requirements.

"Sinclair has every interest in making sure the FCC takes this next step and calls upon the entirety of the broadcast industry to make sure adequate DTV reception performance is specified," said Nat Ostroff, vice president of New Technology at Sinclair.

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