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The rush to digital

Posted: 12.26.05

Huh?

At CES and afterwards you are going to hear about how the TV set manufacturers are suddenly in a panic to get digital-ready sets. This is happening since the FCC's announcement last month that moved up the deadline on which "TV receiver devices such as VCRs and digital video recorders must include the capability to receive broadcast digital television signals." The date was moved up by three months to March 1, 2007, and it covers large-, medium-, and small-screen TV sets, as well as any peripherals that include a TV tuner.

Three months!? That's a big deal when the FCC first told the TV set manufacturers in 1987 that the switch-over was coming. Now, we know these companies don't move fast—in fact they don't move at all unless some government puts a cattle prod to their butts. But a three-month move up after 13 years has gotten them nervous, excited, and scared? Jeez, maybe we should take up a donation for them; start a TV trauma clinic.

So the semiconductor suppliers to the CE market will be rolling out their solutions for the CE box builders. Presumably, the TV box builders will be running around CES cutting deals as they look at the parts from which they have to choose. Don't stand in their way, it's an ugly sight—herds of TV box execs in their freshly starched white shits with monogrammed cuffs and gold cufflinks, perfectly styled and slicked-down hair running amok in the crowds waving program guides trying to get the attention of formerly ignored and now overwhelmed semi suppliers.

But the semi suppliers are up for it. They've trained for this for years. They knew one day they'd be validated, valued, no longer vilified. "Our day has come," one TV semi exec told me, "and we're going to put it to those bastarÉ, that is, we're prepared to work with the set builders and help them with time-to-market issues and feature sets," ("the SOBs," he muttered).

You can't blame them, the semi guys. After all they've been knocking on unopening doors for a decade trying to get the TV box builders to pay attention to the changes in technology. It was a major breakthrough when PIP was introduced—imagine, two pictures at the same time, like, ah, whatcha call it, Windows.

Now the TV box companies are sticking their wetted finger into the sky to see if they can feel the digital signals pulsing through the air and potentially getting stuck to their competitor's aerial and not their own. After all, if someone comes home from Costco, Dixons, or Big Camera's Shinjuku-Nishiguchi store, turns on the new TV, and all they get is the OSD, well, that's not going to make for a happy consumer, and the retailer is going to experience his worst nightmare: returns.

So the ever-resourceful, swift, and forward-thinking TV box builders, led by their well-fed and slightly over-served crack executives, will scoop up all the TV decoders, digital tuners, de-interlacers, demodulators, decryptors, and decoders, and design and develop digital delights for the easily deceived and distracted consumers, who will of course be shopping in droves during Q1 2007, the major selling season for TV, right? Just in time to get the thing installed and ready to watch the Beijing Olympics; and believe me, watching it on TV rather than with a surgical mask in polluted Beijing will definitely be the preferred way to see it; for one thing, you may actually be able to see it.

What's ironic about the FCC's big timetable shakeup is the agency's keen understanding of technology and trends in TV. The lobbyist run agency included the number one item on everyone's entertainment rack, the venerable and always amusing VCR. Huh? VCR? Who in their right mind would build a VCR with a digital tuner? When we asked the crack TV box builders this question, they quickly responded, "The Chinese." What? Is China the eBay of outmoded technology? The Chinese don't want dopey VCRs, they want, and mostly have, DVD players, and some leftover CDVs. But the erstwhile FCC is protecting us, and making sure that if any new VCRs come into this country (from China) they will have digital tuners, so rest easy, America, your government is still on the job.

This speedup of digital-capable TVs and VCRs (snicker) is for the small to mid-size screens, 13-inch to 24-inch. One 100 percent of TV receivers with screen sizes 25 inches to 36 inches have been mandated to include digital reception capability by March 1, 2006, a whole year earlier, but that didn't seem to get the box builders excited. And receivers with screen sizes 36 inches and above must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2004; 100% of such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2005—go figure. So it's a little difficult to understand this sudden alleged panic on the part of the TV box builders.

If this stuff interests you, you might enjoy reading, "Requirements for Digital Television Receiving Capability": http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-05-190A1.doc.