updated 10/4/2004 8:16:04 PM ET 2004-10-05T00:16:04

It's one of the biggest technical changes in television since color TV: the digital transition. And because many Americans remain in the dark about it, federal regulators began an education campaign Monday to enlighten them.

Digital signals don't have "snow" or interference associated with traditional analog transmissions. Digital also allows broadcasters to offer sharper, movie-theater quality pictures available as high-definition television. To see those eye-popping pictures, however, viewers will need a high-definition television set, or HDTV.

"For the vast majority of American households, digital television may be uncharted territory," Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell said. "We will not let them go it alone."

At a news conference, Powell announced a new Web site to answer questions about digital TV. It will explain what viewers will need once broadcasters switch from transmitting analog signals to digital and list high-definition programming offered in local communities.

Powell also was to appear on ABC's "Monday Night Football" to push the transition to digital.

Congress set a target of December 2006 for broadcasters to shift from analog transmissions to digital. The date is widely expected to slip because only a small slice of the population has digital televisions, or DTVs.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that about 10 percent of U.S. households, 11 million in all, have digital sets. Last year, about 4 million DTVs were sold, and the association expects Americans to purchase about 7 million sets this year.

Buyers have several options ahead of the transition to an all-digital signal.

They can purchase a new digital television set, which costs from $500 to more than $7,000. While expensive, prices have been coming down over the years, and Powell said he expects to see the decline continue.

For those who don't have cable or satellite TV and don't want to shell out hundreds of dollars for a new set, a converter box will be available to receive and decode digital signals. They cost about $200 each.

The FCC's Powell plans to have the five-member commission vote this year on a proposal to set the end date for the transition to digital to January 2009. The 2006 target date set by Congress was contingent on 85 percent of the country being able to see digital signals. Lawmakers did not spell out exactly how that 85 percent figure was to be counted, however: by number of sets sold, number of households that can be reached by digital signals or other methods.

The FCC hopes to clarify the counting method with the vote, probably in November or December.

A handful of consumer and public interest advocates protested outside the FCC during Monday's new conference. They objected to the lack of consumer group representation at the event, which included two panel discussions with leading broadcast and cable executives.

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