Uncle Sam is at fault as usual

This is the ninth in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

In our previous post, we noticed that the only VCRs or DVD recorders that had tuners were the top-end models which have newer ATSC digital tuners in addition to the older NTSC analog tuners.

NTSC stands for “National Television Standards Committee” and it is the standard for all analog television used in the United States and Japan as well as a few other countries. Wikipedia has an extensive article about NTSC. ATSC stands for “Advanced Television Standards Committee” and it is the standard for digital television including the new HDTV standards. Again Wikipdeia has an extensive article about ATSC. On February 19, 2009 all over the air broadcasts using NTSC analog signals will end and only the newer ATSC digital channels will be broadcast. Much of the hype about the conversion to digital has typically said something like “Only people who rely on over the air broadcasts through an antenna have anything to worry about. If you have cable or satellite you have nothing to worry about.” I was beginning to look like that statement wasn’t true at least when it comes to VCRs.

I logged into my favorite video support AVSForum.com and asked the question “Are VCRs with tuners ancient history?” Click here to read that thread. The people there confirmed my suspicions that our beloved federal government was to blame. A new ruling which took effect March 1, 2007 said that video equipment imported for sale in US that has an older NTSC TV tuner in it must have a new ATSC to capable of receiving a digital television signals.

Here’s a link to CNet.com which has an excellent guide to HDTV and explains the March 1 rule.

In general that’s a pretty good rule when it comes to televisions. You would hate to put hundreds of dollars into a television set that was going to be unable to receive broadcasts in less than two years. This is similar to a previous rule regarding UHF tuners that were mandated to become standard on TVs back in the early 1960s as I described in a previous blog entry.

The loophole in this regulation is that if a device has no tuner at all, then the regulation doesn’t apply. For several years now they’ve been selling HDTV’s that did not have the new ATSC tuners. The industry has been very good at warning consumers that these less expensive HDTV’s require some sort of external source of HD content such as a cable box, satellite boxes, or external tuner of some kind. Note however most of these so-called HD monitors have traditionally also had regular cable ready NTSC tuners for standard over-the-air television and analog cable reception. The fact that after March 1, 2007 these lesser expensive models would drop the NTSC tuner probably isn’t that big a deal assuming they keep doing a reasonable job of warning customers about the limitation. As I explained before, they are doing a really terrible job of warning of public that the VCRs are completely tunerless.

I did some more research on a couple of those models of VCR/DVD recorders which had newer ATSC tuners. They were about $100 more than a comparable unit without a tuner. One thing I could not determine in every case was if they still have older NTSC tuners. Just because you have a new digital tuner doesn’t mean you can still tune to the older channels.

In our next installment we will see that the situation may affect more than just your VCR use. Cable and satellite subscribers may have more to worry about than you think!

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