What About the Tiny TVs?

You might not have noticed that there are numbers smaller than 13. I point this out because the FCC, Our Beloved Commish, seems to have just made the discovery.
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You might not have noticed that there are numbers smaller than 13. I point this out because the FCC, Our Beloved Commish, seems to have just made the discovery.

Yes, of course, I'm taking about the famous "tuner mandate." Humor me while I provide a bit of history.

The FCC issued its DTV rules around the 1997 NAB show, by which time a couple of stations had already been on the air for about nine months. By the 2002 NAB show, DTV should have been a happening thing. It wasn't.

So FCC chairman Michael "Mikey" Powell came up with a "voluntary" plan to get things going. He told networks to transmit DTV-type programming (HDTV or "value-added" stuff). He told broadcasters to pass through the network stuff. He told cable ops to carry those broadcasts and provide HDTV and digital outputs from cable boxes. He told cable equipment makers to provide those boxes. And he told TV makers to roll out sets with DTV reception on a phased-in basis, starting with big-screen sets and ending with all those 13 inches and up.

The networks, broadcasters, and cable ops sent letters to Mikey telling him how wise he was, so he forgot all about them. The TV set makers sent a letter saying something in the vicinity of "Hey! This is expensive stuff!"

I'd say that was a totally legitimate response, but methinks Mikey was more interested in "Oh, you are so wise." Anyhow, the only part of the plan that ceased being voluntary was the part about adding "digital tuners" to TV sets. Mikey's schedule just slipped six months. So, instead of the first part kicking in on Jan. 1, 2004, it was delayed to July 1.

LEND ME A TUNER

As of that date, 50 percent of TV sets with screens 36 inches or bigger were supposed to receive DTV. Now then, there are a handful of 36-inch TVs selling for less than $1,000, so they were just put in the other 50-percent category. Adding even a $500 DTV receiver to a $10,000 deluxe giant-screen TV probably wasn't going to put off many buyers. But then came this month, July 1, 2005.

According to Mikey's non-voluntary schedule, 100 percent of TVs 36 inches and up need to receive DTV this month, and so do 50 percent of the ones from 25 to 35 inches. They tell me DTV reception these days adds just a hundred bucks to a TV's cost. That probably ain't a deal breaker on most 36-inch TVs. But there are 25-inch TVs selling for less than a hundred bucks, and methinks even the most expensive CRT-based 27-inch set is less than $400.

So the TV makers, after first trying to get the whole tuner mandate thrown out, appealed to Our Beloved Post-Mikey Commish for a little leeway. Keep the 100-percent requirement for 36 inches and up, they said, but eliminate the 50-percent requirement on TVs 25 to 35-inches on account of a hundred bucks being a lot to add to an under-$100 TV. We do think the DTV receiver circuits will get cheaper, so here's the deal. We'll move up the 100 percent requirement for the 25-to-35s to March 1, 2006 instead of July 1.

Last month, the FCC ruled. No thanks, they said. We'll keep the 50-percent requirement. But, on account of you saying you could do 100 percent by March, we'll take you up on that, too. And, while we're at it, we might just move up the requirement for all TVs 13 inches and up and other tuner-equipped devices (like VCRs and DVD recorders) from July 1, 2007 to no later than Dec. 31, 2006. Oh, and what about TVs under 13 inches?

The set makers learned obeisance. Their response to the ruling was something like, "Gee, we're a wee mite disappointed about the July 1, 2005 part, but you sure are wise anyhow!"

Then they started introducing more video screens without analog tuners. No analog tuner, no digital mandate.

Just like all the rest of you, I can hardly wait to see the prices of 25-inch TVs with DTV receivers. But I've been wondering about the last part of the FCC order for quite some time. What about those TVs under 13 inches?

Google "5-inch TV," and you get 330,000 hits. Try "7-inch TV," and it's 323,000. Other sub-13-inch sizes offer comparable quantities of hits. Heck, "8-inch TV" brings 334,000.

One of those 330,000 5-inch TV hits is a list of about 20 Chinese manufacturers and the 5-inch TVs they offer. All of them run on batteries.

There are some color LCD TVs that are great for taking to the game. They're a little on the pricey side.

Then there are contraptions with fluorescent lamps, flashlights, weather radios, and even a siren. They're intended for camping, I guess, or maybe for when the power goes out. They seem to run around $50 or so.

Then you've got your basic, 5-inch battery-operated TV, maybe with an AM/FM radio. They cost less than $20. You can find them at drugstores and supermarkets, or try the aforementioned Google search. I found one company that wanted just about $15, including shipping.

Methinks it unlikely that anything with DTV reception is ever going to cost $15. But I'm also wondering about the batteries. Some states seem to be trying to ban DTV receiver boxes because they draw too much power.

Now, then, I ain't a scholar of Chinese electronics manufacturing, but I'd guess that if there are 20 companies making 5-inch TVs, it's on account of they expect to sell them. One brand being offered is Jeep. "Hey, I'm rugged," it seems to suggest. "I can deliver reruns in the wilderness."

Maybe the other brands push the idea that battery-operated TVs continue to work during power failures. Ready.gov calls for battery-operated radios in homeland security kits; why not battery TVs?

I don't envy the FCC. If they add the tuner mandate to under-13-inch TV models, they'll get expensive and maybe need power plugs. If they don't add them, then what exactly are people supposed to watch on them after the analog plug gets pulled?