updated 6/9/2005 11:28:26 AM ET 2005-06-09T15:28:26

Federal regulators on Thursday moved up the deadlines for manufacturers to make popular, mid-sized television sets capable of receiving digital signals.

Digital, TV's next-generation technology, provides sharper images and more programming options.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 4-0 to require that all medium-sized televisions, those with screens from 25 to 36 inches, be capable of receiving both digital and traditional analog signals by March 1, four months earlier than the commission had decreed three years ago. Regulators also retained a requirement that half of all new mid-size televisions have the capability by July 1.

The commission also proposed moving the deadline for all small TVs — those 13 to 24 inches — to have digital tuners to the end of 2006, rather than the July 1, 2007, deadline the regulators set in 2002. That proposal will be voted on later, after a period of public comment.

The lack of digital-capable television sets has been a major impediment to Congress' tentative deadline of December 2006 to complete the transition from traditional analog TV signals to digital. The 1997 law setting that deadline permits it to be extended in any market until 85 percent of the homes have a digital TV.

"We need to push the transition to its conclusion as expeditiously as possible, said Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy.

The Consumer Electronics Association and Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition argued that the transition to digital television has actually been slowed by having a July 1 deadline for half the medium-sized TVs to have digital capability.

They said retailers, expecting consumers to buy more non-digital televisions because they're less expensive, have been ordering more of those increasingly scare models from manufacturers and less of the more expensive, digital-ready models.

Television manufacturers and retailers supported the petition, while broadcasters opposed it. The National Association of Broadcasters said eliminating the 50 percent requirement would delay the transition to digital TV by guaranteeing the sale of more televisions that receive only analog signals.

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.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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