Television's digital transition has been the source of angst and debate in government and in the entertainment and consumer-electronics industries for more than a decade. In 1996, Congress gave broadcasters spectrum to begin digital broadcasts on the condition that their original frequencies would revert to the government at the end of this year. No one really took that date seriously, but the new deadline, part of a massive budget bill awaiting final passage when lawmakers return from break, looks firm.
This is a very big deal for station owners, but truth is, the overwhelming majority of U.S. households -- around three-quarters of them -- get TV signals by cable or satellite. So most consumers will see little effect from the shift and don't need to think about it unless they happen to be buying a TV set in the next three years. All satellite and most cable signals already are digital, and set-top boxes for these systems can send the signals to either digital or analog TVs. The end of analog will affect those who don't get cable or satellite, as well as viewers with secondary sets that aren't connected to a cable or satellite feed (for example, two of the four sets in my home rely on over-the-air because I haven't bothered running cable to them).CONGRESS FEELS THE PAIN of voters whose analog-only sets will be rendered obsolete by the transition. The driving force behind the legislation is lawmakers' desire to raise an estimated $10 billion by auctioning off the analog spectrum. Of that, $1.5 billion will go to subsidize consumers' purchases of converters, expected to cost about $60, that will let old sets receive the digital broadcasts. A bigger burden awaits consumers who want to buy a new set during the transition. Under Federal Communication Commission rules, all TVs bigger than 36 inches must include a digital tuner that can handle the new broadcasts. Manufacturers can get around this with some sets by calling them "displays" and not including any sort of tuner; these are fine for cable or satellite reception. Half of all sets between 25 in. and 36 in. must also have digital tuners. That requirement goes to 100% on Mar. 1 of this year. A year later, all TVs of any size must have digital tuners.
The problem in the near term mainly affects people who want to buy small to midsize sets. You can get a conventional cathode-ray tube crt) 30-in. television for $300 to $350, but it will have only an analog tuner. If you want one, buy it soon. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, sets bigger than 20 in. with analog tuners only and CRT sets of any size, were scarce. A 30-in. digital CRT with a digital tuner will probably set you back about $650, and that doesn't get you true high definition. HD costs around $1,000 for a 30-in. CRT and upwards of $1,500 for a 32-in. flat-panel. Sets smaller than 20 in. with digital tuners don't seem to exist, and even searching for them is hard because manufacturers often do not state the tuner type.
The prices of digital sets, especially standard-definition CRTs, will drop quickly as the regulations force manufacturers to ramp up production. But if you are looking to buy a small and relatively inexpensive set in the next year or so, perhaps to receive over-the-air broadcasts in the kitchen or a bedroom, you should plan either on buying an adapter or buying a new digital version when the size you want is available.
In the long run, the digital transition will be good for consumers, mainly because as all programming becomes digital, more and more of it will be high-definition, too. In the meantime, shopping for televisions may be a bit confusing.For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm By Stephen H. Wildstrom