FCC Puts Tuners on Deck

The FCC is ready to determine just when manufacturers have to start cranking out TVs with digital over-the-air ATSC tuners. The commission's current deadlines require that all sets larger than 36 inches, and half of those 25 to 35 inches, have integrated digital tuners by July 1. At its regular June meeting, the FCC will address a petition to get rid of the halfway point for mid-sized sets.

Since the ATSC tuners still add about $100 to the price of a set, TV manufacturers feared that the halfway point on mid-sized models would leave them with warehouses full of integrated TVs. The 25-to-35-inch category accounts for roughly 40 percent of shipments to retailers, who have no obligation to buy and sell the pricier ATSC versions.

Chris Llana of Chapel Hill, a longtime observer of the DTV transition, said demand for integrated sets might increase if regular folks had a clue about what's going on.

"There is now good information out there, but you first have to know to look for it, then how and where to look for it," Llana said in the filing on the petition NPRM. "Lots of people 'know' about HDTV, but only a few know the all-critical context. None of my friends knew anything about the transition to the ATSC television standard until I told them; they had no idea that each TV station is broadcasting two separate signals. Most people think there is only one signal that works with all TV sets, or as I have learned, many have no real idea how the picture gets to the TV set."

Having failed to convince the courts to overturn the tuner mandate, the Consumer Electronics Association went back to the FCC and asked it to drop the halfway point in return for integrating all mid-sized sets by March 1, 2006, four months earlier than the established 100-percent deadline for that size category.
The FCC took up the CEA petition in January. Facing the forced shut-off of analog signals, broadcasters balked that the market would continue to be flooded with sets that could pick up only those doomed signals.

In the meantime, a draft bill was introduced in the House Commerce Committee that would require manufacturers to put ATSC tuners in all sets (13 inches and larger) by July 1, 2006--a year earlier than the FCC requirement. At a hearing on the draft bill, the CEA backed off on its earlier request to toss the 50-percent threshold, telling Congress to leave the current statute alone.

In the broadcast camp, getting digital tuners into TV sets is simply one element of the debate. Whether or not those tuners are actually capable of receiving anything is yet another concern. There are no minimum requirements for receiver performance, but the tuner mandate does that that "TV sets would have to provide useable picture and sound quality commensurate with their video display and audio capabilities when receiving any of the recognized ATSC video formats."