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This week in TV

Millions of American television sets that receive only analog over-the-air broadcasts could go dark if not upgraded by 2009.

Millions of American television sets that receive only analog over-the-air broadcasts could go dark if not upgraded by 2009.

That deadline was suggested in a pair of hearings by members of the U.S. Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The committee is preparing legislation that will require all American televisions to run on digital signals by the end of 2008. That would free up the analog, or 700 MHz, spectrum for other uses such as broadband services and communications for emergency workers. Under current law, analog television would be cut off on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of households are capable of receiving digital signals, whichever comes sooner.

The DVR landscape may be changing as well. Software maker Forgent Networks filed suit against 15 TV and media conglomerates, alleging that the companies are infringing on a Forgent patent covering crucial technology inside digital video recorders. Forgent claims its patent describes how to build a computer-controlled video system that can play back video while recording.

The 15 defendants include Cable One, The Washington Post Co., Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner, EchoStar and other cable carriers and media outlets. Those companies all offer DVR services to subscribers. More defendants, though, are almost inevitable, and could include companies that make DVRs, or PC makers that market home computers for recording TV.

Anxiety, meanwhile, goes hand in hand with the impending war over next-generation movie formats. Echoes of the quixotic battle between Sony's Betamax and the VHS format that ultimately replaced it remain in the minds of businesspeople involved even loosely with Hollywood, a distraction that nobody wants to repeat.

But it may already be too late. Hollywood studios have committed to releasing scores of high-definition DVD movies later this year. Two camps backing incompatible next-generation technologies, led respectively by Sony and Toshiba, have as yet failed to agree on a way to unify their products. They're still talking, but studio executives increasingly say--if only privately--that they are losing hope that a compromise will be reached.

The timing could not be worse. Consumers' seemingly insatiable hunger for new DVDs may finally be diminishing. Executives at Dreamworks Animation and Pixar Animation Studios have each issued earnings warnings in recent weeks, and retailer Best Buy noted in its quarterly earnings statement last week that sales of DVDs have tumbled.

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