FCC Accelerates Tuner Deadline, All Right

The FCC unanimously denied a petition by the Consumer Electronic Association to alter the integrated tuner deadline--sort of.

The CEA asked the FCC to get rid of the deadline when half of mid-sized TVs would be required to have integrated digital broadcast (ATSC) tuners, in exchange for moving the 100-percent deadline up four months. Instead, the FCC kept the 50-percent deadline and moved the 100-percent date up by four months.

Consequently, in three weeks, half of all TVs with 25- to 36-inch screens must have ATSC tuners, and all such sets will have to include the circuitry by March 1, 2006, instead of the previously established deadline of July 1, 2006. (The tuner requirement does not apply to products that are "monitor only;" but to TVs that otherwise have analog broadcast reception capability.)

The commission also opened a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to move the final deadline for smaller sets--13 inches and up--up by six months, from July 1, 2007, to Dec. 31, 2006. The notice also asks for comments about whether a tuner requirement should be extended to sets with screens smaller than 13 inches. The FCC reasoned that all smaller sets should include tuners by Dec. 31, 2006, because that is still the statutory end date of analog broadcasting. In a House bill that would extend that statute by two years, the tuner requirement for small sets would be moved up a full year, to July 1, 2006.

The CEA wanted the halfway point on mid-sized sets ditched because it said the ATSC price premium drove away retailers, who are not subject to the FCC rule. ATSC reception currently adds about $100 to the price of a TV.

The first phase-in started July 1, 2004, when half of sets 36 inches and larger had to have ATSC reception. Eight months later, ATSC-capable sets in that size category comprised less than one-third of what reached showroom floors, according to a survey of ads in major metropolitan newspapers tracked by New York-based TV expert Mark Schubin. From the March 28 through June 3, of 1,237 ads for TVs 36 inches and larger, 387--31 percent--included ATSC tuners.

Those larger sets account for about 18 percent of sales to dealers, while the mid-sized category accounts for about 40 percent. Thus, CEA members fear being left with warehouses full of mid-sized ATSC sets.

CEA chief Gary Shapiro nonetheless put on a brave face after the ruling, "commending" the FCC for moving up the overall deadline, but expressing disappointment over having the halfway point retained. In the same statement, dire warnings were issued over the accelerated deadline for smaller sets.

"Even if manufacturers were able to meet such a severely foreshortened production schedule, an earlier timeframe could result in cost increases that the marketplace cannot sustain," the CEA said. "For smaller sets, 13- to 26- inches, the requirement would double the development costs for manufacturers, as well as double the price of a typical 13-inch television to consumers."

At least one consumer electronics manufacturer jumped to embrace the FCC action. TTE, the TV-making joint venture of Thomson and Chinese appliance giant TCL Corp., is in the process of rolling out a line of low-priced (sub-$400) standard-def DTVs. Greg Bosler, executive vice president of the TTE North America Profit Center, said TTE was "eager" to complete the DTV transition and sell more of the cheaper sets. A $300 27-inch model, demonstrated on Capitol Hill in May, is due to hit the market later this year.

The National Association of Broadcasters was predictably keen on the tuner decision, having endured a recent barrage of CEA flack over what it considers the paltry amount of people who rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasting. (In the name of full disclosure, that includes one TV Technology editor.)

"With today's decision, the FCC validates that the 'tuner mandate' is a powerful pro-consumer mechanism for moving the digital television transition forward," NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts said. "We salute Chairman Martin and other FCC commissioners for accelerating the original tuner schedule, and we strongly support the proposal to move up DTV tuner compliance for smaller TV sets."

The continued manufacture of analog sets only serves to delay the transition, he said. Analog television sets continue to outsell digital sets by roughly 4-to-1.