Federal regulators accelerated yesterday the deadline under which new mid-size televisions must be capable of receiving higher-quality digital signals.
The Federal Communications Commission said all mid-size sets - models between 25 and 36 inches - sold in the United States must have digital tuners by March 1, four months earlier than the prior deadline.
Half of those sets are required to have the devices by July 1 of this year, a separate deadline the FCC kept in place yesterday over manufacturers' complaints.
All new large televisions above 36 inches in size will be required to have built-in digital tuners by next month, a standard unchanged by the latest rulings.
Digital signals offer viewers a clearer, more vibrant picture, without "snow" or other interference associated with traditional analog transmissions. The technology also allows broadcasters to offer high-definition television.
New televisions with only analog tuners are scheduled to become obsolete Dec. 31, 2006, when over-the-air broadcast signals are supposed to switch permanently to digital.
The law setting the 2006 target deadline for the transition permits it to be extended in any market until 85 percent of the homes can receive digital TV. Proposals in Congress could extend that deadline. Most major stations broadcast both signal types.
Manufacturers had asked the FCC to move up the 100 percent deadline for mid-size sets to speed up consumers' transition to digital technology.
Trade organizations applauded that portion of yesterday's ruling.
But the Consumer Electronics Association said it was disappointed that the FCC kept the 50 percent deadline coming up in three weeks.
The group said the requirement would slow manufacturers' ability to increase production of digital televisions to meet the 100 percent deadline next March.
"While I am sympathetic to the claims that requiring only 50 percent compliance will cause some unanticipated problems in the marketplace, the proposed delay simply would exact too great a cost on the overall progress of the DTV transition," FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy said.
The ruling could perplex television-buying consumers who aren't sure exactly why they'll need a digital set, said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc.
"I find the FCC ruling could be confusing for consumers," he said. "If only half the sets have to have the tuners by July, I don't see how the FCC is going to enforce that."
Yesterday's decisions could encourage more consumers to buy digital televisions, said Myra Moore, president of Digital Tech Consulting.
"It intensifies the trend," she said, but not nearly as much as the original FCC rule that established the drop-dead date for analog transmissions.
Consumer awareness that their televisions must be able to receive digital over-the-air broadcasts continues to grow, starting slowly after the government started the transition, she added. "Last year was what I would call a hump year" when sales of digital sets turned a corner.
The FCC rulings aren't likely to cause a run or price changes on smaller sets that are analog-only, Moore said, unless some consumers like them for "nostalgia" value the way some music collectors prefer vinyl records.
The key difference is that analog sets won't produce any pictures in 18 months if current regulations stay in place. "And who's really fond of the snowy picture?" she asked.
Once analog signals stop, those without digital TVs who rely on over-the-air signals would need converter boxs to continue using their analog sets. The converters are expected to sell for about $100 each.