NAB-MSTV Converter Proposal Bewilders CEA

The NAB and Association for Maximum Service Television Stations (MSTV) announced that they will work jointly to help develop a "prototype high quality, low cost" digital-to-analog converter box for consumers, causing some serious head-scratching at the CEA, which labeled the move a publicity stunt and "a solution in search of a problem."

NAB and MSTV plan to issue a Request for Quote, seeking proposals from the consumer electronics industry and others to build a prototype box that the lobby groups would like to see demonstrated within the next six months. NAB said in a newsletter to its members that the eventual chosen prototype "would serve as a blueprint for future products from manufacturers to serve broadcast-only television sets."

NAB has expressed misgivings that a complete shutdown of NTSC broadcasting to make way for ATSC programming could leave owners of more than 20 million analog sets (the exact number is arguable) with no television whatsoever. Also, NAB and some consumer advocacy groups argue that a large percentage of those U.S. households that will still be totally dependent on off-air signals for their TV viewing are also the least likely able to afford higher priced DTV sets to capture emerging HD, SD and multicast services.

Meanwhile, CEA President/CEO Gary Shapiro said the "stunt" is "novel, considering that no one before has suggested any problem with creating a relatively simple digital-to-analog converter box. The issue is market demand. No one sells [a converter box] in the U.S. today [since] most local broadcasters do not have full-power HDTV broadcasts and only 11 percent of TV sets are even used to receive over-the-air broadcasting."

Shapiro said history repeats itself. The NAB, he noted, commissioned a prototype model radio in 1987 and its commercial success "has been underwhelming. We suggest broadcasters focus their resources on promoting OTA broadcasting, rather than trying to confuse the situation and delay a cut-off date."

Some manufacturers say they are already willing and able to mass-produce low-cost converters boxes at under $100 (and perhaps half that amount), according to published reports. But the companies are waiting to see what Congress does about establishing a hard cut-off date (at the moment, the new date will likely be Jan. 1, 2009), and whether some type of federal subsidy for the boxes will be included, which appears likely. These issues may not be fully resolved, if at all, until the fall.