WASHINGTON - The set-top box, a necessary appendage for millions of cable television customers for decades, is moving toward extinction.
A leading television manufacturer, Sony Electronics Inc., and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said yesterday that they signed an agreement with a group of cable providers including Comcast that will allow viewers to rid themselves of set-top boxes, yet still receive advanced "two-way" cable services, such as pay-per-view movies.
In most cases, cable viewers also could dispose of another remote control because they could use their TV's control rather than one tied to the set-top box.
The agreement marks a significant meeting of the minds between cable companies and one of the world's dominant makers of consumer electronics. The two industries have been feuding for a decade about how best to deliver cable service to customers while allowing them to buy equipment of their own choosing.
Sony agreed to use the cable industry's technology in its sets as soon as possible but could not say when the first such televisions might be appear in stores.
The agreement is between Sony and the nation's six largest cable companies: Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc., Cox Communications Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Cablevision Systems Corp. and Bright House Networks. The six companies serve more than 82 percent of cable subscribers.
Cable subscribers are generally locked into renting a set-top box from their provider if they want more than the most basic cable TV service.
More than a decade ago, Congress ordered the cable industry to allow outside electronics makers to compete for the boxes. The industry responded by developing the "cable card." The cards are inserted into competing boxes, televisions or other devices and unscramble the cable signal.
The cards have been the source of frequent customer complaints and never proved popular. In addition, sets can only receive signals from their cable company, not vice versa. Subscribers were unable to enjoy "two-way" features such as video on demand, on-screen channel guides and cable company-provided digital video recorders.
Customers will still be able to attach their own devices - such as TiVo digital video recorders, according to the NCTA.
Under the new system, customers will still need to get a cable card from their provider, but the agreement means, hopefully, that technical glitches will be eliminated, "two-way" services will be available, and there will be no need for the clunky boxes.
The cable association said it was hopeful that other electronics manufacturers would also agree to use the same technology.
The industry hopes to head off action by the Federal Communications Commission to impose a two-way standard on the industry.
"Every member of the FCC has encouraged the parties to resolve these highly technical issues in private-sector negotiations," said Kyle McSlarrow, president of NCTA. Yesterday's announcement means they have done so, he added.