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Days are numbered for analog sets

By S.A. Mawhorr Daily Herald Business Writer
December 30, 2002

Looking at high definition television is like having nearsighted vision suddenly corrected to a perfect 20-20.

You can see a blade of grass or the leaves of a tree being blown by the wind. The sky looks blue and the grass looks green. An actor's profile is sharp and distinct.

But most consumers don't know what they're missing.

About half of 1,000 people surveyed said they didn't know the difference between a traditional analog broadcast signal and a high definition digital signal, according to a report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"Until you see a high definition TV next to an analog set, you don't notice the difference," said Jennifer Miller, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.

Limited awareness of digital TV shows up in sales of units designed to receive digital signals.

About 25 percent of television sets sold in 2001 were equipped to handle digital signals, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Sales through September of this year showed an increase to about 36 percent.

A big obstacle for most consumers is the price.

The average price for a digital TV set was more than $1,800 last year, according to the consumer association. That's down from an average of more than $3,000 in 1998.

The price you pay varies greatly on the size of the TV set and added features.

Consumers also need to know there's a difference between standard digital and high definition digital. Digital pictures are better than analog, but high definition is the best using more data to transmit an amazingly clear picture. High definition sets also cost more.

You're going to have to educate yourself as a federal deadline to turn off analog signals looms closer. That's a deadline only about 40 percent of those surveyed are aware of, according to Congress' survey.

Back in 1996, Congress set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, for broadcasters to turn over the airwaves carrying their analog signals back to the federal government - providing that at least 85 percent of U.S. households are capable of receiving a digital signal.

Congress wants to free up more of the spectrum without sacrificing television broadcasts that consumers get free of charge. The solution is digital television.

A digital signal takes up less room on the airwaves. The amount of spectrum available for emergency communications will double after the transition to digital signals, said Michelle Russo, a spokeswoman for the Federal Communications Commission.

But players throughout the industry have hesitated to embrace digital television.

Broadcasters have been reluctant to switch formats because so few sets can receive digital signals. And television makers have been reluctant to include digital tuners in their sets because of so little programming and consumer demand.

Cost also has been an obstacle.

Television manufacturers have been reluctant to include digital tuners in sets because it will increase the price an estimated $250, said Miller, amounting to a "tax" of $7 billion on the industry and consumers, she said.

Costs for television broadcasters can total $3 million for the equipment a local affiliate needs to transmit digital signals. And if a station wants to produce local programming in digital, then the cost is closer to $10 million, said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

In an effort to get all the players to plunge into the untested waters together, FCC Chairman Michael Powell published a plan for a voluntary switch last April. The agency gave that plan some teeth last August when it set deadlines for tuners in television sets.

By July 1, 2007, all televisions produced must have a tuner inside allowing them to receive digital signals. The change is incremental starting with 50 percent of all sets with screens measuring 36 inches or more by July 1, 2004.

Broadcasters have been gearing up for the inevitable not only because the federal government is demanding it but because it won't be long before consumers are demanding it, Wharton said.

At last count 686 stations in 174 markets that serve more than 95 percent of all U.S. households currently are broadcasting digital signals.

While digital signals are becoming more common, the more intense high definition signals still only make up a few hours of the broadcast day.

Although digital signals are better quality than analog, it's a high definition picture that really impresses. But more data must be transmitted to get high definition and broadcasters are reluctant to give up the bandwidth that would require 24 hours a day.

"Most of the high definition broadcasts are primetime shows," Wharton said. "It's not really necessary at 3 a.m."

But a small percentage of people get their broadcasts via the airwaves. Millions of households subscribe to cable or satellite services. Satellite TV already comes across as a digital signal. But cable subscribers won't get digital signals unless they pay for a premium service, which gives them a converter box to transform the analog signals into digital.

There's no deadline for cable to switch to digital from analog. But the hope is that pressure from customers will make cable companies make the switch, said Michelle Russo, a spokeswoman for the FCC.

AT&T Broadband, serving the Chicago area and recently bought by Comcast, currently is working to upgrade its grid to handle digital all the time.

"Our goal is to be all digital," said Dan Murphy, vice president of technical operations for the greater Chicago area. "It's a better use of our bandwidth."

And a new agreement signed this month between cable service providers and television manufacturers will eliminate the separate set-top converter that cable subscribers need if they want to receive digital signals.

The agreement outlines "plug and play" industry standards that will allow consumers to buy a television, take it home and plug in the cable line without much thought and without a separate set-top converter box.

The cable service providers and television manufacturers who signed the agreement are asking the FCC to mandate the standards nationwide.

If all goes well, TV sets that are ready to "plug and play" could be available as early as 2004 in plenty of time for the digital switch in 2006.