HD Deadlines: Sooner Than You Think!

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Sales of flat panel displays, high definition optical disc players and high definition projection systems were all the rage during the just concluded "holiday shopping season" at conventional retail. One would think that some of the mania for large screen, HD displays would be motivated by the most visible deadline in the transition to digital television. Mark February 17, 2009 on your calendar and remember it any time you have to bid on any project that involves off-air television reception. As all SCN readers hopefully know by now, that is the date when all terrestrial analog broadcasting must cease in the U.S. Invite the neighbors over for a party-it won't be the ball dropping in Times Square at midnight, but rather it will be the sound of "sssssssssss" when the clock strikes 12 and the analog service goes dark.

Behind that main date, however, a gradual transition has been taking place over the past 30 months as the FCC requires television receivers to gradually incorporate tuners for ATSC digital signals along with traditional tuners for the soon to be discontinued analog broadcasts. Working downward through screen sizes, starting with sets 36 inches and above, the three step "digital tuner mandate," as it has been referred to in the trade and popular press comes to a conclusion just shy of two years before analog signals cease. It may seem to be something that, as a commercial systems contractor you don't need to pay much attention to, but if you think carefully about it, this date could have as much significance for your clients and your own business as the February 17 date will.

Since March 1, 2006, all television receivers with screen sizes of 25 inches or larger must incorporate a digital tuner if they have any tuners at all. Put simply, if it is a monitor with NO tuner, no problem. However, if it is larger than 25 inches, if it has an analog tuner, a digital tuner is also required. The final step in the process and the change at issue here? According to a change to the schedule announced in November, 2005, a prior date of July 1, 2007 was pulled forward to March 1, 2007. What happens then? Let's quote directly from Part 15, Paragraph 15.117 (i)(1) of Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations:

"Responsible parties, as defined in Section 2.909 of this chapter, are required to equip new TV broadcast receivers that are shipped in interstate commerce or imported from any foreign country into the United States, and for which they are responsible to comply with the provisions of this section in accordance with the following schedule:

• Receivers with screen sizes less than 25 inches: 100 percent of all such units must include DTV tuners effective March 1, 2007

• Other video devices (videocassette recorders (VCRs), digital video recorders such as hard drive and DVD recorders, etc.) that receive television signals: 100 percent of all such units must include DTV tuners effective March 1, 2007."

Yes, to the layman that may read like pure bureaucratize, so let us boil it down to the basics and then you may well have a "light bulb moment." As of March 1 you can still sell, but manufacturers may no longer import or ship across state lines any television set, regardless of screen size, or any device at all, be it a VCR, TiVo or other hard drive recorder, DVD recorder or similar product unless it has a digital tuner. Bottom line, after March 1, it can have an analog tuner, and it MUST have a digital tuner. No exceptions other than to leave the tuner out altogether.

If your first reaction is to think that this is only important for our cousins over in the residential systems world, think again. Look at the systems you have installed over the past few years, and consider those on the boards or bid roster for the months ahead. Are any of them for hotels where small TV sets are spec'd in for bathrooms? Do you do any work in hospitals? Are you planning any library or archive systems that need off-air recording of news programs? Does the coach need to have a means of recording off-air signals to scout the performance of competing teams? Are there small video displays along the soffit over the central service area in a sports bar so that patrons can watch different games? Do the corporate executives ask that you provide a means of recording a stock market wrap-up show each day? Does the school district need a means of recording off-air instructional programming for future playback? Does the educational committee at a house of worship record any off-air programming for authorized re-use? Do any of these applications involve not just a small screen television receiver, but a recorder of any type (VCR, DVD, hard drive or computer with a tuner card)? If they do, pay attention!

All of those applications and probably many more require a means of tuning and displaying or distributing, or otherwise recording today's analog signals. Yes, the digital transition is well underway, but when it comes to recording we're not quite there yet. Products that receive ATSC signals, even if they downconvert the video and record it in "SD" resolution are still rare, and rather expensive. Clearly, they are not the sub-$100 VCR or sub-$200 DVD recorder we are all used to. One could look to products provided by cable or satellite companies for some availability of hard-drive recorders, but these products rarely include DVD recording capability, requiring a separate step to archive programs from the hard drive off to a disc or tape. Even when cable or satellite could provide an answer to some part of the tuner/program reception puzzle, outside of sports bars and lodging industry applications, there are often physical installation or financial complications that make it prohibitive to provide anything other than off-air reception in an office building, educational campus, military base or similar facilities.
Up until now, the answer to any of the situations outlined above would be relatively simple and inexpensive, and until March 1 it will probably continue as such. What will happen as the year moves on?

Remembering that the regulation, as quoted above, pertains to the importation of new products, but not the sale of those already in stock, supplies of VCRs and DVD recorders won't dry up overnight. However, with no new low-priced units able to be brought in, those stocks will deplete sooner than later. With that, pricing for remaining stock may go up as a different type of law-that of "supply and demand"-takes effect. Taking that into consideration, you may want to consider laying in some reserve stock of your own, as it will become difficult, if not impossible to replace existing VHS VCRs with new ones.

Indeed, one has to do a bit of prognostication and wonder if the price increases that would be required to include the components needed to add digital tuning and downscaling to analog will accelerate the end of the road for VHS. Yes, there are millions and millions of them out there, and blank cassettes should be available for the foreseeable future, but if the format is not viable for recording, at least in the U.S., is it nearing the end of the road? Perhaps this is another reason to add some stock of new VHS recorders as replacements for those in current service. At the very least, if this is the start of the end game for VHS, it might make it worth suggesting that those clients with large libraries of archival content stored on VHS accelerate the conversion of that material to a more up to date digital format with, of course, systems you design and install.

As a side note, while the message here shall be to set a warning about the future for new VCRs, particularly ones in the consumer market channels, the same warning probably does not apply to tape. Don't let the caution here scare everyone totally out of their wits to the point where they lay in stocks of blank cassettes in the fear that they will suddenly disappear from the market. Will the machines, themselves, be harder to find "new in the box?" That's almost a certainty. Do your clients need to fill a storage locker with blank cassettes? No, not now and probably not for some time to come. The tens of millions of machines already in the consumer and commercial markets will likely assure reasonable availability of new blanks for some time to come.
While the focus here so far has been on recording devices, don't ignore small screen size sets. They are just as central to the tuner mandate's DTV requirement, and you need to think about their place in your current and on-going jobs, as well. This is particularly the case when it isn't out of the question that, seduced by the thin profile of LCD screens in any size, your clients may assume that since the "screen" is digital, the tuner will be, as well.
Of course, that is far from the case. Not only do very few of the current small size sets include digital tuners, many are not even "HD capable" displays. "Not..." as they used to say on Seinfeld, "that there's anything wrong with that." At the close-in viewing distances and with smaller screens, it would mostly be a waste of budget resources to insist on HD resolution at 13 inches and under, even if sets in those configuration were available.

How do you handle the need for digital tuners in small size sets? If they are in a standalone application, options at the moment are limited, but as the mandate takes effect, sets that comply will surely follow. We'll have a report on that in the months to come as the manufacturers show their hands for the coming year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this month. Until then, the best advice is to be careful about budgeting, as costs for sets with digital tuners may be higher than the older analog-only models.

At the same time, don't forget to explain to your less technical clients that a digital tuner does NOT automatically mean that a set will display an HD image, only that it will tune in the digital signals while probably displaying them in less than HD resolution. "1080p" in a set under 19 inches, let alone 13 inches? As they say in the old neighborhood, "fhugeddaboutit." If, for some reason, better than standard definition resolution is required in a small size screen, the best bet for the time being may be to use an outboard tuner with a higher resolution computer monitor and deal with any signal conversion as needed between the two. Perhaps a bit of a kludge, but that is exactly what systems integration is all about.

Another alternative is to use a digital tuner that is internal to a computer, easing the task of using a high-res computer monitor somewhat. These, too, are somewhat rare at the moment, but not only will the tuner mandate likely bring more (and lower priced) DTV tuner cards to market, the consumer availability of Windows Vista Ultimate, the replacement for Windows XP Media Center Edition will further stir the demand, and with it lower prices. More news about Vista, new computer-to-consumer display options from Apple will also be forthcoming in the months directly ahead.

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