Today is the day when every new television set shipped for sale in the United States must have a digital tuner.
Big deal? You bet.
And it's about time. In just 718 days, every existing analog TV set that receives signals through an antenna will go dark unless it's hooked up to a converter box. Why? Because the nation's broadcasters will switch to a new digital transmission system Feb. 17, 2009.
Those digital-to-analog converters aren't available yet and probably won't be until 2008, industry leaders said yesterday. And even though Congress approved $1.5 billion for vouchers to help Americans buy the boxes, there still are no regulations that specify how they should work, or how people will go about getting them.
Does this sound like the recipe for a political mess? The DTV Transition Coalition is obviously worried about it. This group of broadcasters, TV makers, retailers, cable TV networks and civil rights organizations gathered in Washington yesterday to launch a public education effort with the motto "No Viewer Left Behind."
One reason for their concern was a survey by the National Association of Broadcasters. It showed that most people affected by the switchover - including millions who can't afford cable service or don't want it - were only vaguely aware that their TVs would turn into doorstops. And very few at all knew it would happen in less than two years.
"Disproportionately, the elderly, the poor and the disadvantaged will find themselves in the dark through no fault of their own," said Nancy M. Zirkin, vice president of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, a member of the DTV coalition. "Some 20 million viewers, people like your aunt, your grandmother ... will be cut off from the great communications medium of the 20th century."
Here's how it works. Under a deal worked out with Congress in 1996, the nation's 1,700 local broadcasting stations are replacing their 70-year-old analog transmission technology with a new digital system that's incompatible with traditional analog TVs sets.
This won't be a problem for people with cable or satellite service, because their providers will still deliver a signal their TVs can display. But it will affect the 15 percent of the nation's households that get all their TV the old-fashioned way --- over the air.
They'll have to buy new digital sets or pick up converters that receive digital broadcasts and convert them into analog signals. The same goes for millions of cable customers with second or third TVs that use antennas.
The new digital system requires less bandwidth than the old one, so broadcasters will return some of their radio spectrum to the federal government.
The government will give a small chunk of that bandwidth to police, firefighters, the National Guard and other first responders. That's the "public service" end of the deal - the flag your congressman can raise when you ask him why he voted for something as nutty as this.
Congress will auction off most of the freed bandwidth (which you and I own) to wireless providers who will use it for important public purposes such as transmitting high-definition Desperate Housewives episodes to our cell phones.
Current estimate for this sell-off of our assets: $10 billion. That sounded like real money when Congress bought this deal in 1996. But now it's barely enough to keep the war in Iraq going for six weeks.
In return for this, we get to spend billions on new digital TVs that we never asked for - money that will put us even deeper into our trade deficit with the world's sweatshop nations.
Some of these are slick high- definition TV sets - about 36 million sold so far, including one in my house. Yes, the HDTV picture is a lot better - but once you get past football, baseball, a few action flicks and travelogues from Outer Mongolia, the pickings are slim, as many new buyers are finding out as the winter drags on.
This whole episode is a object lesson in bad public policy, but we're stuck with it. So don't get burned. When you buy your next TV, even if it's a spare set for the bedroom or guest room, make sure it has a digital tuner. It doesn't have to be HDTV - standard digital sets will work just fine for a lot less money.
Even though all TVs shipped today must have digital tuners, there are lots of pure analog sets still on the shelves. Don't buy one unless you're willing to buy a converter for it later.
For more information on the digital switchover, visit www.dtvtransition.org.
Department of apologies: Last week's column on the Daylight Savings Devil elicited a stream of comments from readers - a few of whom were justifiably angry.
To summarize, daylight saving this year begins March 11, three weeks earlier than before, and ends a week later, on Nov. 4. This change, enacted by Congress, may create annoying problems with many computers, smart clocks, PDAs, phones and other gadgets that automatically set the time an hour ahead when daylight-saving time rolls around. They may not know that the switchover has been moved up.