Home-Theater Journal Update for 2006

In our opinion, DVD remains the most cost-effective, digital television format.  It is also far and away the most compatible format for the installed base of analog TV sets, DVD players and personal computers.

Recently, however, the US government has been reconsidering its date for the end of analog TV broadcasting.  According to this recent article at BusinessWeek online, the new date appears to be February 17, 2009.  At that time, your TV screen may go black.  If it does, you will have to purchase a digital tuner or buy a new set with one built-in.  According to the latest FCC ruling, new sets with screen sizes in the range of 25-36 inches must have digital tuners as of March 1, 2006.  (They are already mandated for larger sets.)  However, even if you buy a digital tuner, you still might not get the improved quality that your old TV is capable of.  For example, we are using a 32-inch monitor that accepts VGA, SVGA and XGA inputs.  Its recommended setting is SVGA, so it is not quite up to HDTV quality, but we would like to keep using it for a while.  Therefore we would like to use a tuner with separate SVGA analog-video and 5.1 digital-sound outputs.  Unfortunately, most stand-alone tuner boxes dont convert HDTV signals to SVGA internally.  They probably output 480P to the VGA connector, if they have one.  This digital signal should be better than the analog one, but it wont be HDTV or even the 600P our monitor handles so beautifully.  A tuner card or USB adapter is probably a better solution for our PC-based home theater, but CableGard and HDCP present further complications.  We intend to investigate possible solutions to these problems in the future. 

Right now, though, we want to focus on the policy decision to end analog TV broadcasting. Lawmakers favor it because the VHF spectrum that will be made available can be sold for about $10B.  The policy is also favored by the consumer-electronics industry because they are eager to supply all the new equipment that will be needed.  The fascinating question is whether a substantial number of voting consumers would agree.  Most consumers are probably not aware of the cutoff yet, and those who are will probably not do anything about it until their screens actually black out.  At that time, the public reaction has the potential to be of crisis proportions.  A memorable line from a recent movie, The Gladiator, may suggest the magnitude of that crisis:

The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate, it's the sand of the coliseum.

American consumers, too, are riveted by dramas played out on special sand on the inside of our TV screens.  These phosphor materials, by the way, have been developed almost to perfection over about eight decades and the successful manufacture of billions of cathode-ray tubes.   Its hardly surprising that CRTs still combine the best picture quality with the lowest cost.  And its still possible that a similar technology will be able to leverage CRT phosphors in a large-area, flat-screen format.   We are referring here to the surface conduction electron display (SED) being developed for manufacture by Canon and Toshiba.

How many American consumers are likely to be upset when government pulls the plug on analog TV?  The Consumer Electronics Association has argued that since only 33.6M of the 285M TVs in the US are used to view broadcast television, it follows that the vast majority of the 109.7M TV households will not be affected.  The National Association of Broadcasters disagrees with the CEAs number and conclusion, saying  "There are 21 million homes and 73 million receivers relying exclusively on antennas to receive local television signals.   But whether the number of families affected will be 13M or 21M, its clear that a substantial number of presumably low-income Americans risk ejection from the sand box, as it were.  Is television going in the same direction as medical care and higher education in America?  Fortunately, the NAB is funding a program with the Association for Maximum Service Television to develop a low-cost digital to analog converter box.   This looks promising because high-volume manufacturing of converter boxes, without attached plasma, LCD or DLP displays, could bring the unit cost down to an affordable range.

If worse comes to worst, we may have to bank on IPTV.

(last updated December 29, 2005)

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Copyright 2005, Terence J. Nelson