Thanks to geniuses in Congress, your TV may no longer work


June 16, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

ONE DAY in the not-too-distant future, all the TV sets in your home that aren't hooked to cable boxes will turn into pumpkins. If you want to receive over-the-air broadcasts, you'll have to replace them with sets that cost at least twice as much, or pay a $100 "digital TV tax" for each set. That's what I call the estimated cost of a converter that will enable your set to do what it did for free the day before - receive TV broadcasts.

You can thank Congress for this opportunity. Back in 1996, our lawmakers, the nation's broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission and the folks who make consumer electronics hatched a scheme that will cost households hundreds, if not thousands of dollars each for something they have demonstrated only a marginal appetite for so far - high definition digital television (HDTV).

Collectively, the cost will run to billions, most of which will go into driving up a trade deficit that's already past 100 percent on the scary meter. And as usual, the burden will fall heaviest on those who can afford it least.

Every now and then, the Federal Communications Commission does something more to remind me just how stupid this deal really is. Last week, it voted to speed up the pace at which TV manufacturers will have to make sets with digital tuners available to the public. Not that manufacturers have paid much attention to past deadlines.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's how the scheme works:

In 2008, or whenever Congress ultimately decides, over-the-air broadcasters will abandon the VHF frequencies they now use for Channels 2 to 13. The federal government will use some of that bandwidth for public safety, but auction most of it off to private carriers.

In return, the broadcasters will get expanded bandwidth in the UHF range and change their method of broadcasting from analog to digital. That means shows will be transmitted as a series of ones and zeros that can be decoded only by a new generation of TV sets, or by old sets with converter boxes (none of which seem to exist yet).

Broadcasters can use their new bandwidth to provide a high-definition TV signal, as most of them are doing, with far better resolution than today's analog signals. Or they can use their allotment of the airwaves to provide several channels of "standard definition" programming - somewhat better quality than today's analog TV, but nothing to write home about.

Although the original 2006 deadline for making the switch is rapidly approaching, it won't happen because only a relative handful of Americans have actually bought digital TV sets - high-definition or otherwise.

The only reason the TV public hasn't panicked over the proposed disappearance of analog broadcasts is this: The primary TV set in 80 percent of American households is hooked up to a cable box and doesn't get its signals over the air.

Cable companies don't want to lose customers. They'll continue to provide old-fashioned analog signals along with digital signals for years to come.

But if you're a cable customer with one or two additional sets that receive broadcasts over the air - say in the kitchen or a bedroom without a cable outlet - those sets will turn into junk without a converter.

For the 20 percent of households not served by cable or satellite TV - either because the residents can't afford it or don't want it - the situation is far more serious. Without spending money for converters or expensive new digital sets, they'll be completely in the dark.

Why don't we have more digital TV sets already? One reason is that TV makers are concentrating on selling the fanciest, high-definition models, with the biggest markups, at prices in the $1,000 to $5,000 range. A lot of people don't have that kind of money, or don't feel like spending it on TV.

It's quite possible to make a standard-definition digital TV set for $50 to $100 more than an analog set of the same size - but just try to find one. As a result, consumers are still buying millions of old-fashioned analog sets that will be obsolete in a couple of years.

Which brings me back to the FCC. Last week it set March 1, 2006, as the date when all mid-sized TV sets (25 to 36 inches) offered for sale in the United States must have digital tuners. That's four months earlier than the original deadline.

It left unchanged a ruling that 50 percent of all mid-sized sets offered for sale have digital tuners by July 1, 2005. That's two weeks from now.

To see how well the industry is complying, I logged onto the Web site of one of America's big box TV retailers and checked out mid-size TVs. If everybody were paying attention to the FCC, about half of them should comply - or at least a third, or maybe even a quarter.

Right. Out of 35 sets in the category, I found exactly one that had a digital tuner built in. That was a 26-inch Samsung HDTV for $617. It was more than twice as expensive as Samsung's traditional, 27-inch analog set. And it was the cheapest digital TV of any kind that I could find.

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