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TV Makers Begin DTV Tuner Integration

With the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) mandate to begin phasing in digital ATSC tuners in television sets this year, a number of manufacturers planned to take the wraps off fully integrated products at CES.

The process actually was begun slowly a year ago by a number of manufacturers, but plans for many were accelerated last fall after the FCC approved a one-way version of the cable television plug-and-play interoperability agreement.

With plug-and-play rules in place, several set-makers felt more confident marketing integrated TVs that also provided a cable solution. In addition to an ATSC tuner, such sets add a slot for a CableCARD supplied by cable operators, who under the plug-and-play agreement will use those devices to authorize eligible televisions to unscramble premium cable channels.

Under the regulations imposed by FCC chairman Michael Powel late in 2002, TV makers are to include DTV tuners in half of all sets they sell 36-inches and above by July 1, 2004.

For TVs with screen sizes of 25 inches to 35 inches, half must include DTV tuners by July 1, 2005, and all must by July 1, 2006. All other sets between 13 inches and 24 inches must have tuners by July 1, 2007. Manufacturers will remain free, though, to sell true monitors without a DTV tuner as long as they do not include NTSC tuners, as many plasma displays and front projectors are sold today.

TV makers also have the option of building sets with both digital and analog tuners or no tuner at all. The rules do allow companies to bundle an add-on digital tuner in a separate box, which would allow the sale of today’s H/DTV monitors, also informally known as digital-ready sets.

Some manufacturers, such as Samsung and Sharp, will follow the letter of the law by introducing lines of HDTV monitors early in 2004, with plans to “drop in” virtually identical units that add ATSC tuning and CableCARD capability around the second half of the year.

Other manufactures are using a two-piece “bundled” approach to DTV tuning.

The following is a glance at what some manufacturers were planning to help meet the FCC mandate in 2004:

LG/Zenith Electronics plans an extensive slate of fully integrated HDTV sets, including plasma and LCD models, most of which will be carried under the premium LG brand.

Three out of four plasma panels in the top-end LG “Y” series of fully integrated products will include CableCARD plug-and-play capability in 2004, and will be offered in the 60W-, 50W- and 42W-inch screen sizes. The 50W-inch model is expected in August, with the other two planned for October deliveries. All LG plasma models will include DVD-HDCP inputs.

In LCD TV, the LG line will offer four fully integrated widescreen LCD TV sets in the 52W- (October availability), 42W- (June), 37W- (September) and 30W-inch (June) screen sizes.

Also being planned are fully integrated DLP-based rear projection HDTV sets, under the LG brand. In June, the company plans to offer a 52W-inch fully integrated HDTV set with CableCARD slot, and 1394 and DVI-HDCP interfaces. Currently planned for December 2004, introductions are fully integrated models in the 48W-, 56W- and 62W-inch screen sizes. All will include CableCARD slots.

Under Zenith, the company will carry digital direct-view CRTs models with fully integrated ATSC tuners in the 34W-, 32- and 30W-inch screen sizes.

Richard Long, LG/Zenith product management director, said that due to the company’s status as the developer of the 8-VSB modulation system used in the ATSC broadcast standard, fully integrated sets will be positioned prominently in the line.

Pioneer will offer a two-piece solution to the DTV tuner mandate in a series of plasma displays in 2004. The package will bundle a separate display panel and tethered external “Media Receiver” unit that houses the tuners, video processing circuitry, and in/out connectors for source components, said Matthew Dever, Pioneer marketing and product planning VP.

“With the changes in standards happening as rapidly as they are, the media receiver approach has allowed us to not have to change the glass and a lot of engineering efforts just to change the Media Receiver,” Dever said. “We can have an engineering team work on the box every six months until everything falls into place. Things should settle down in the next 12 months. So we expect to look at a one-piece integrated approach for a 2005 introduction.”

The media receiver will connect with plasma monitors in Pioneer’s 40 Series, consisting of the 50W-inch PDP-5040HD, the PDP-4340HD, and the Elite PRO-910HD and PRO-1110HD. All began shipping to dealers prior to the holiday selling season, and incorporate the latest Media Receiver with dual NTSC tuners and a single ATSC tuner.

At mid-year 2004, Pioneer will introduce the second generation of the Media Receiver, which will incorporate a CableCARD slot for unidirectional plug-and-play digital cable reception.

Samsung will offer ultra-thin DLP-based rear-projection displays in dual-performance levels, with ATSC-tunerless monitors shipping in the first half of the year, and virtually identical versions with ATSC tuning coming in the second half of the year.

The base-level monitors ship in between March and May and will carry suggested retail prices of $3,499 (46W-inch), $3,799 (50W), $4,299 (56W), and $4,599 (61W). Pedestal-style monitors will be priced at $4,499 (50W) and $4,999 (56W). The latter two will ship in June.

Integrated versions will add about a $500 price premium and will include ATSC tuning, a CableCARD slot for one-way plug-and-play capability, and both 1394-DTCP and HDMI-HDCP digital interfaces.

In plasma models, Samsung plans to carry fully integrated HDTV sets in the 50W- and 63W-inch screen sizes this year.

Although not subject to the FCC mandate this year, Samsung will offer a line of integrated HD CRT direct view models with ATSC and QAM digital tuners in the 26W-, 30W-, 27- and 32-inch screen sizes, at prices similar to current monitor-only versions. Integrated models will add ATSC tuning capability for a $100 premium over the price of new monitor-only versions slated for 2004, but will not include CableCARD plug-and-play capability.

Sharp will highlight new widescreen LCDs coming from its new factory in Kameyama, Japan. In the first part of the year, the company will offer LCD HDTV monitors in the 26W-, 32W-, and 37W-inch screen sizes, and will target customers who plan to add HDTV cable and satellite set-top boxes to receive programming. By the later part of the second quarter, Sharp will start to introduce a family of products that add fully integrated ATSC digital tuners, one-way CableCARD plug-and-play slots, and an electronic program guide. Other features include DVI/HDMI-HDCP and IEEE-1394-DTCP digital interfaces.

Integrated AQUOS models will be part of the GD4U AQUOS series and will all offer 16:9 aspect ratios in the 26W-, 32W-, 37W- and 45W-inch screen sizes. The 45W-inch model features 1,080p resolution, while the remaining units offer 1,366 by 768 pixel counts. Prices will be announced later, but integrated models are expected to add a $500 premium over the similarly sized monitor-only versions.

For a bundled solution, Sharp will introduce an outboard A/C controller (AVC) system offering source connectivity, video processing, DTV tuning and other features. The advanced HDTV AVC unit (model TU-GD1U) includes a built-in DTV tuner/decoder with uni-directional CableCARD plug-and-play compatibility. The box, which will ship in the second quarter at a price to be announced, includes two sets of HD component video inputs, as well as HDMI and DVI advanced digital interfaces.