White House Plan Would Help TV Viewers Use Older Sets After Switch To Digital

The White House wants to help Americans buy conversion devices so they can still watch television on older sets after broadcasters convert to a digital format.

TV broadcasters would be forced to stop transmitting programs on their current analog signal - now received on 220 million TV sets and switch to the new digital format by 2002, under a White House budget plan.

That would make existing TV sets useless without a set-top box to convert the digital signal into analog.

Digital TV sets, capable of transmitting an even more defined picture called high definition, are expected to debut in the United States by 1997 and to cost about $10,000 each, the Electronic Industries Association has said.

The White House, as part of a larger budget plan, is considering creating a fund that would help people buy set-top converters, which would cost about $100 each. The proposal is designed to sweeten an administration recommendation to shorten broadcasters’ transition to the digital world.

“It’s not a surprising concept,” said a Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity Monday. “We’ve been interested in ways to ease the transition to consumers.”

The fund would come from auctioning the analog TV channels that broadcasters would have to give back to the government by 2002.

The White House’s budget estimates that auctioning these channels would raise $13 billion for the Treasury. The White House is interested in shortening broadcasters’ transition to digital because the faster analog channels are auctioned, the faster money can flow to the government.

It was not clear exactly how much money would be earmarked for the fund to assist consumers.

The National Association of Broadcasters panned the plan. “I don’t think consumers will scream less because they may have to spend less to buy a converter,” said spokeswoman Lynn McReynolds. “They’re still going to have to buy something they wouldn’t have because the White House would be speeding up the transition.”

The industry opposes accelerating the transition to digital.

McReynolds said the plan also burdens broadcasters because they will have to spend billions to more quickly convert their stations to digital and it may end up slowing the sale of digital TV sets.The National Cable Television Association had no comment.

Under a Federal Communications Commission plan, TV broadcasters would have 15 years to switch to digital.

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