WASHINGTON (AP) – Television viewers who crave the crisp, clear pictures of digital TV got a boost Thursday when the government ordered manufacturers to include the technology in all midsize models by next spring.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 4-0 to require televisions with screens from 25 inches to 36 inches be digital-ready by March 1. That is four months earlier than the commission decreed in 2002.

The commission also proposed moving the deadline for all small TVs – those 13 inches to 24 inches – to the end of 2006, rather than mid-2007, as had been set. That proposal, which also applies to DVD players and other devices that can receive a TV signal, will be voted after a period of public comment.

Electronics retailers and manufacturers had asked two changes: scrapping of the July 1 deadline for 50 percent of new midsize TVs to have digital tuners and moving up of the final compliance deadline to next March instead of July 1, 2006.

The 50 percent threshold applies to each manufacturer or importer.

Retailers and manufacturers said this July’s deadline was slowing the transition to digital because consumers were continuing to buy more of the traditional analog TVs, which are less expensive.

The FCC acknowledged those market concerns. But the agency refused to budge on the 50 percent deadline. Instead, commissioners decided to use the request to speed up the overall transition from analog to digital.

The proposed 2006 deadline to have all TVs larger than 13 inches equipped with digital tuners would coincide with the target date Congress has set for ending analog transmissions.

“We need to push the transition to its conclusion as expeditiously as possible,” Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy said.

Broadcasters hailed the decision. Edward O. Fritts, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, said it was “a powerful pro-consumer mechanism for moving the digital television transition forward.”

But the Consumer Electronics Association warned that moving the digital tuner deadline for small TVs to the end of 2006 could result in sharp price increases for sets that are purchased mainly by low-income consumers.

“The unfortunate result of accelerating the tuner mandate deadlines for all sets would be to decrease the number of (digital TV) tuners in the marketplace, which clearly does not serve the transition,” said Gary Shapiro, the association’s president.

Digital signals do not have “snow” or interference associated with traditional analog transmissions. Digital also allows broadcasters to offer sharper, movie-theater quality pictures available as high-definition television. To see those eye-popping pictures, however, viewers will need a high-definition television set, or HDTV.

Most major TV manufacturers probably will meet the July 1 deadline for half of new midsize TVs to be digital ready, according to the CEA.

But FCC officials said the agency already is investigating several manufacturers that may not meet the deadline and intends to be much tougher in enforcing the requirement than it was with a similar requirement for large TVs, those 36 inches and up.

Manufacturers can be fined based on the number of days they are out of compliance and the number of sets below the 50 percent mandate.

The original 2002 tuner mandates set by the FCC required that half of large TVs be equipped with digital tuners by July 1, 2004, and that all of them be digital ready by this July 1.

Congress is considering proposals to set a deadline for ending analog television signals. The 1997 law setting the 2006 target deadline for the transition permits it to be extended in any market until 85 percent of the homes have a digital TV.

About 12 percent of U.S. households rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcast signals for their television, according to a CEA survey. Eighty-six percent have cable or satellite TV subscriptions, and 2 percent do not have any television.

Once traditional analog signals end, households without a digital TV that rely on over-the-air signals would have to purchase a converter box to continue using their analog sets. Those boxes can run upward of $100.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said if Congress sets a deadline to end analog broadcasts, the resulting demand for converter boxes would drive down the price. Congress also is considering a subsidy program to help offset converter costs for low-income households.


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