The trouble with picking labels

Battle heats up over how the FCC describes cable-compatible digital TVs

What's in a name? A lot, apparently, if you're talking about digital television sets. One of the biggest fights in the DTV transition is over the seemingly simple question of what to call digital sets that work with cable.

After the cable industry and set makers failed to agree, the FCC in September came up with a labeling scheme intended to let consumers know whether a model would connect directly to cable lines and whether it also would accept-either with or without a set-top box-interactive features that cable systems plan to offer.

Now the cable industry says the FCC got it all wrong. Last week, the National Cable Television Association asked the FCC to reconsider the labels. The trade group argues that the FCC's decision to rely on the "Cable Ready" moniker is confusing and risks a buyer backlash that could sour consumers on DTV.

At issue are three DTV labels that the FCC created in September:

Digital Cable Ready 1. No interactivity. Allows a TV to connect directly to cable without a set-top box, albeit with a security module for viewing encrypted programming. Does not contain the required IEEE-1394 "firewire" connector necessary for two-way communication.

Digital Cable Ready 2. Connects to interactive set-top boxes with firewire.

Digital Cable Ready 3. Provides interactivity without set-top by placing all two-way functions inside the TV. No firewire.

The NCTA says the "1-2-3" classifications don't tell consumers enough about sets' capabilities and urges the FCC to accept the "Digital TV-Cable Connect" and "Digital TV-Cable Interactive" labels brokered in a deal with the Consumer Electronics Association this spring. That deal fell apart, though, after some CEA members balked.

NCTA says the term "cable ready" is confusing because consumers expect any cable-ready set to work without a set-top box.

"For good reason, the cable and consumer electronics industries rejected 'cable ready' terminology for digital receivers early on," NCTA said in its petition to the FCC.

NCTA also opposes interactive sets without the firewire because they might become outmoded when additional interactive services are created if the sets have no way to connect to set-tops.

If the FCC refuses to drop the "cable ready" moniker, NCTA says, the agency instead should create two wholly new labels: "Digital Cable Ready One-Way" for sets without a firewire connector and Digital Cable Ready Two-Way" for those with the connector. Manufacturers also should be required to post a grid comparison chart on marketing materials and on showroom floors spelling out the different capabilities of the sets, NCTA says.

CEA officials are not requesting any changes to the government labels. "We're not comfortable with the FCC's mandating labels," said technology-policy chief Michael Petricone.