DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor


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What's Bad to the Bone in Stores

February 24, 2006

With March 1 fast approaching, I thought I'd stop by my local Best Buy to see what sort of new TVs were lining their shelves. What I found was disappointing, to put it mildly.

What's March 1 got to do with it, you ask? Well, March 1 is when all new mid-size TVs (25 to 35 inches) are supposed to ship with ATSC/digital tuners built-in. Beginning last July 1, 50 percent of those mid-size TVs were required to have integral digital tuners.

Back when manufacturers started building large digital HD TV sets, almost all featured wide-screen 16:9 displays (which is part of the ATSC standard for high-definition TVs).

Perhaps naively, I assumed that when smaller digital TVs came on the market, they would also sport widescreen displays. Seemed to make sense. New programming is all moving to a 16:9 aspect ratio. It seemed logical that new TVs would match the new programming.

My expectations were met last year when a few mid-size digital TV sets started hitting the market. They mostly all had wide-screen displays.

But during last year's FCC regulatory proceeding on when digital tuners should be mandated for small TVs (i.e. less than 25"), some manufacturer comments seemed to suggest they intended to meet that requirement by simply tacking digital tuners on to old analog 4:3 designs.

In other words, essentially taking an NTSC TV and adding an internal digital-to-analog converter box (well, probably actually substituting a digital/analog combo circuit board for an analog-only one). Those TVs would function the same as an old analog set connected to an external D/A converter.

That was an alarming thought.

But cheap and quick, and satisfying the letter of the law, if not the spirit. And it also had the great advantage that your typical American consumer would not for long tolerate looking at widescreen programming letterboxed on those sets' 4:3 displays and would (grumbling) go off to the store to buy yet another new TV, this one with a widescreen display and better resolution.

Anyway, so back to my trip to the store today.

What I found in the store was rows and rows of NTSC-looking mid-sized 4:3 standard-definition TV sets with built-in digital tuners.

Someone is obviously resisting the transition to this country's digital TV standard. I'm dismayed.

If they get away with hoodwinking the American consumer into buying obsolete mid-size 4:3 standard-definition TV sets, it will simply be that much easier for them to do the same thing with small TVs (which won't have to incorporate digital tuners for another year, thanks to aggressive industry lobbying).

Could be why the industry is so against warning labels on analog TVs and DTV transition public service announcements. An ignorant consumer is their best customer.