Your TV was just rendered obsolete. The Federal Communications Commission approved a plan today to turn the nation's television system digital, meaning new sets and VCRs for everybody--or a least set-top converters to allow your analog equipment to read a digital signal.

Digitalization promises clearer pictures and crisper sound, in addition to easy integration of video and computer displays. Alternatively, broadcasters could cram many more analog-quality channels into the existing bandwidth. To get the full effect, you'll need a digital set; they're expected to hit the market by Christmas 1998, initially for a whopping $2,000 but surely for a lot less as mass production kicks in.

And all this will come down surprisingly quickly. At the prodding of the FCC, 23 stations in the top 10 markets committed to going digital in the next 18 months. The rules adopted today mandate digital signals for 30 percent of households by May 1999. The whole switch should take nine years. That's broadcast, mind you--what happens to cable (which is not licensed by the FCC) is another story. Only one cable system, Tele-Communications Inc.'s outlet in Hartford, Conn., offers a digital wire.

The FCC plan was 10 years in the making, but it took a final push by commission Chairman Reed Hundt to get the broadcasters to agree. Some critics think he promised too much: TV-station owners will exchange their current licenses for new ones covering the digital airwaves--something the FCC previously figured it could have auctioned for $70 billion. "This is one of the largest federal giveaways of the century," said Gigi Sohn, executive director of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm.

But the commission will consider later what new requirements it might impose on the broadcasters as a condition of receiving their digital papers. Some possibilities, said Sohn: free time for political candidates, more educational programming for kids and more air for community meetings.

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