Digital TV Switch Looms

By July 1, all large TVs and half of all midsize sets sold in the United States must have digital receivers. The requirement is part of a government-mandated switch to digital TV transmission. Technology reporter Mike Grebb tells Jennifer Ludden what it all means to consumers.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Here at home it's television manufacturers who are facing a big technological hurdle. By July 1st--that's the week after next--all the large TVs and half the midsize sets they make must have digital receivers. That deadline is just the first in a series aimed at phasing in digital television in the US. To explain what this means, we've turned to Mike Grebb. He's a contributor to Wired News.

Thanks for coming in.

Mr. MIKE GREBB (Wired News): Thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: So are TV manufacturers going to make this deadline?

Mr. GREBB: Yes. They have to, and I think they will. The consumer electronics people have already said they're going to make it, and I suspect they will.

LUDDEN: So explain the context here. I mean, why the big push from the FCC to get people to buy digital TV sets?

Mr. GREBB: Well, I think they're worried. I mean, they're very worried what's going to happen when they cut off the analog signals and millions of consumers have TVs that can no longer receive analog signals over the air, it's going to be quite an outcry.

LUDDEN: And then right now they have a deadline for cutting off analog, or is that also being debated?

Mr. GREBB: That's being debated on Capitol Hill right now, but people seem to be gelling around a December 31st, 2008, date so that basically on, you know, January 1st, 2009, the signals will be cut off regardless of how many people are still out there with analog sets that are not hooked up to cable or satellite. Any set that's hooked up to cable or satellite would basically not be affected. If you look at all the TVs out there, there's not a huge universe of people that don't have cable or satellite. But the caveat to that is--and it's an important caveat--is that a lot of people have cable and satellite but only on one TV or maybe two TVs, and they might have two or three other TVs in the house, one in the garage, one in the kitchen or something that's not hooked up and is using over-the-air, and those TVs are at risk. I mean, those are the TVs that aren't going to work after that cutoff date.

LUDDEN: It would just all go black if you didn't have...

Mr. GREBB: Black or snow or something like that, yeah.

LUDDEN: So why though? Why are they going to cut off analog?

Mr. GREBB: Well, the government wants to get its hands on that spectrum. The spectrum is extremely valuable. It's great beach-front property, as they say, in the wireless world, and they want to take that spectrum and auction it off to wireless companies who want to offer broadband, wi-filike access, video streaming and everything else. And they're going to get billions of dollars for it for the US Treasury. The other thing is that they want to take some of that spectrum that's currently being used by broadcasters and use it for public safety purposes, and there's a big sort of post-9/11 angle on that--national security angle--because they don't want what happened at the World Trade Center where you had fire people and the police who couldn't communicate--they don't want that to happen again, so they want to create a better communications system for those guys. So that's another big angle. It's sort of those two things twisted together that's really created a lot of momentum out there to get a hard deadline that will hand all this stuff back on a particular date.

LUDDEN: OK. So what about for consumers? If you're going to go TV shopping in the next little while--this deadline's coming up week after this. What are you going to find?

Mr. GREBB: I'd be really careful. Any set that was sent out to a retailer before this July date will most likely--if it's an analog TV set, will not have a digital tuner in it. For consumers this means that you walk into a retail store, you really have no idea, unless they tell you--and I'm not sure they're going to tell you--which ones have digital tuners vs. which ones don't. And consumers really have to be educated and ask the right questions.

I think one bright side to this is that the retailers, I suspect, will be very anxious to move those old analog sets out, the ones that don't have the digital tuners, to make room for the new ones that do, so you may see some good deals coming out of this, and if you're planning to buy the TV and you don't have any plans to use the antenna--you're just going to hook it up to a cable or satellite system--you know, you can probably get a pretty good deal on one without a digital tuner. It's not going to be as big an issue for you. It's really more of an issue for people that want to use the TV in the garage or something like that where it's not going to be hooked up to cable or satellite and they're using the antenna--you definitely--if you're using the TV for that purpose, you definitely want to make sure you get one that has a digital tuner in it just to save yourself a lot of heartache later.

LUDDEN: And if you've got an old analog TV and you don't want to go buy a new one, can you upgrade?

Mr. GREBB: Yes.

LUDDEN: Yeah.

Mr. GREBB: If you have an analog set that does not have a digital tuner in the internal part of the set, it doesn't mean you have to throw out your analog TV. But you might have to go out and buy a digital tuner. Now in terms of what that costs, no one really knows what the final cost is going to be. But I should mentioned that Senator John McCain from Arizona has actually just this week introduced a bill that would create a subsidy for low-income people, at least, to receive a subsidy from the government to get those tuners so they wouldn't have to actually go out and buy them themselves. But clearly, any subsidy that they may or may not put in the final legislation is probably not going to cover everyone.

LUDDEN: Thanks so much.

Mr. GREBB: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Mike Grebb is a Washington-based contributor to Wired News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.