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Suit Seeks to Block Digital TV Rule

October 16, 2002|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

The Consumer Electronics Assn. has asked a federal appeals court to overturn the Federal Communications Commission mandate that nearly all television sets be equipped with digital tuners by 2007.

The lawsuit, filed without fanfare at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Friday, pits some set manufacturers against TV broadcasters, which lobbied for the mandate. But the CEA itself is divided over the issue, with some manufacturers opposing the lawsuit and urging the group to withdraw it.

The FCC ordered manufacturers in August to add digital tuners to their sets starting in 2004. The mandate was part of the FCC's ongoing effort to shift the country from analog to digital broadcasting, which enables better picture and sound quality, more channels and new services.

About 500 TV stations are transmitting in digital, yet relatively few consumers can tune in to their local digital channels. Broadcasters say a tuner mandate is needed to build the audience for digital channels and help them recover their investment. But Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the CEA, said the FCC doesn't have the authority to order such a dramatic change.

"We don't like the government telling us what we must make," said Shapiro, who contends that the mandate might add as much as $200 to the cost of a set. Broadcasters argue the amount might be a few dollars.

The lawsuit is drawing flak from at least two set manufacturers: Zenith Electronics Corp., which collects a licensing fee on digital tuners, and Thomson Multimedia, which makes sets under the RCA brand.

David H. Arland, director of government and public relations for Thomson Multimedia, said his company will go along with a tuner mandate if the FCC clears the way for cable-ready digital TVs. Consumers want TVs that can receive premium and digital cable channels without a converter box, Arland said.

Robert A. Perry, vice president of marketing for Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America, said a tuner mandate wouldn't benefit the 70% of viewers who get their channels from cable or satellite.

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