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Some Analog-Only TV Viewers Could Lose Stereo Sound

Much of the focus of the DTV transition is on insuring that analog-only viewers don't lose their current service, but some might wind up losing at least one channel of audio.

According to Les Tyler, president of audio tech licensing firm THAT Corp., most of the DTV converter box manufacturers he has talked to plan to produce boxes to the minimum standard required by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the government agency overseeing the converter-box program. 

Those minimum standards do not require the boxes to pass through the stereo sound of most of today's analog sets.

To keep it from being a subsidy to high-end users boxes with DVR functions, picture-in-picture capability, and other bells and whistles will not qualify, but Tyler argues that being able to hear those 'bells and whistles' in stereo sound should be part of the TV experience.

The boxes will allow viewers with analog-only TV sets to receive a digital picture when the U.S. switches to digital-only broadcasting in February 2007, but whether the digital audio is stereo will depend on what type of box consumers buy. NTIA's guidelines for what types of converter boxes would qualify for the subsidy permitted stereo boxes to qualify, but did not require boxes to be stereo.

Tyler said that after the transistion millions of viewers could have their sound downgraded, and they must be made aware of that possibility.  Tyler offered a few solutions. One, NTIA should require the boxes to identify whether or not they are stereo. Two, and a better option, is the boxes could be converted to stereo for about 40 cents apiece. 

The second option is better for his organization,  which licenses integrated circuit technology like the one needed for stereo. But he also says he has a rooting interest since he was part of a the group that helped come up with the TV stereo standard back in the early 1980's.

Dr. Francine Jefferson, who is managing NTIA's converter box subsidy education program, said that information on whether or not a box would supply stereo sound to the TV (so long as it was already a stereo TV, of course) may be included on list of approved boxes consumers will receive as part of the application process.

Tyler called on Congress to hold hearings on the issue.