Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Can the federal government force you to buy a digital TV set?
The answer is yes. In fact, I predict that the feds will require everyone to own a digital TV in just five years. That is, if everyone wants to continue watching television.
You see, Congress has set a Dec. 31, 2006, mandate for converting the nation’s TV signals from analog to digital. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell says our lives will be enriched by the crystal-clear digital images. But actually, the federal government will be enriched the most. Wireless companies are expected to pay billions of dollars for the analog spectrum in a government auction. Congressional budget analysts say the funds will help balance the budget.
Sounds good, huh? Well, there’s one problem. Americans are not buying the digital TVs. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, fewer than 8 million homes now have one, and only 2 million people own a digital tuner, which is needed to receive the signals. Despite a recent upturn in sales, most consumers are still scared off by high prices and skimpy programming. (On most cable and satellite systems, fewer than 10 networks offer high-definition programming, the sexiest reason to buy a digital TV.)
A federal court recently upheld the FCC’s ruling that all new large-screen TVs must have digital tuners by July 2004 and all new TVs with screens larger than 13 inches must be in compliance by 2007. But millions of Americans are expected to keep their current analog sets for years. Therefore, it’s unlikely that even a majority of homes will have digital television by 2010, much less 2007. Consequently, Powell has acknowledged that the Dec. 31, 2006, date is more of a goal than a mandate. (Industry wags might say it’s more of a joke than a mandate.)
So I predict that Congress will eventually set a real deadline. At the current sales rate, Dec. 31, 2006, is not a realistic “drop-dead” date-perhaps as few as 25 percent of Americans will own digital TVs at that point, and the switchover could leave many people without TV signals. However, Dec. 31, 2007, could be the right time, considering that almost all new TVs will then have digital tuners. The new deadline could be reinforced by a national educational campaign to ensure that everyone is aware of the deadline. And Congress might pitch in with a digital TV tax credit to help low-income residents buy a new set.
Federal officials would like to avoid the appearance of forcing people to buy a TV. However, without the deadline, the digital transition could take more than a decade. Many people will simply not purchase a new set unless they have to.
The FCC understands this and so do key lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Behind closed doors, they have already pondered the logistics of imposing a “drop-dead” date for the transition. However, they do not want to discuss it publicly when so few people have digital TVs. In a few years, the concept of buying a new DTV-even being forced to-may not seem so burdensome.
Now you might say that the federal government has no right to force us to buy new TVs. I agree. Digital TV, and particularly HDTV, is a remarkable technology that will make our lives more entertaining. However, improving the quality of our viewing choices is not a legitimate basis for national policy.
If it were, Congress would pass an emergency funding bill for the producers of this season’s prime-time lineup.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.