DTV Primer

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Store Report

February 13, 2007

I went to my local Best Buy and Circuit City the other day while checking to see what CRT sets were still on the market. What I found was pretty much what was there last time.

Should I be surprised? Disappointed?

The latter, yes. At the end of this month the FCC ban on the importation (or transportation in interstate commerce) of small analog-only TVs goes into effect (smaller than 25"; larger sizes already covered). I suppose I was hoping that the TV industry had decided that selling obsolete TVs was consumer-unfriendly, and would already have been replacing those 4:3 screen NTSC/analog models with widescreen ATSC/digital TVs.

Well, no. There were rows and rows of small analog CRT TVs still displayed, and of course no transition warning labels anywhere in sight.

There are also now lots of small widescreen LCD flat-panel TVs in the stores, but virtually all of them are missing digital tuners. Again, I would have thought they would have put a more advanced digital receiver into those new sets, rather than have to introduce yet newer models with digital tuners come March 1.

Of course, no problem for the consumers who subscribe to digital/HD cable service or the equivalent from satellite. But for the others (over-the-air viewers and analog cable subscribers) . . .

Unsuspecting consumers buying these are likely going to be confused when their shows have black bars on the right and left. Maybe they won't notice. Or after the end of the transition (February 2009) they find they can't get any programming at all on their "new" "digital" widescreen TVs. But they can get a digital-to-analog converter box and downconvert digital/HD to analog and run that into the TV . . .

There are also quite a few mid-size sets (with mandated digital tuners) that still have the old 4:3 aspect ratio screens. No warning labels on these. Apparently many consumers are not aware that programming is switching over to the 16:9 widescreen format. I hope they like black bars.

At Best Buy there was a couple buying a new LCD flat-panel; as the salesperson was wheeling the box to the register, the man asked "This is cable-ready, right?" The salesman said yes and left it at that, without clarifying that the set was only analog cable ready. Which meant that if the buyers wanted to actually watch HD programming on their new HDTV, on cable, they would need a separate cable box.

I talked to the couple a few minutes later when they were browsing and they said they only had analog cable because the cable company charged extra for digital/HD.

So what we have here is a failure to educate.

All of this ranting is a prelude to the FCC oversight hearing in Congress on Thursday during which your elected representatives will grill the FCC on their plans to educate the public about the transition to a new digital TV standard. I'll try to put up my report by that evening.

And coming Saturday, my report on the state of TV -- this year and predictions for February 17, 2009.