This post was updated, as indicated below.
The digital video recorders that have proliferated in U.S. homes over the past decade may be a boon to TV viewers, giving them the ability to time-shift programs, record multiple shows at the same time and pause live broadcasts. But they're also gluttons for electricity, consuming almost as much power after they've been turned off as when they're on.
They're about to go on a power diet. The Consumer Electronics Assn. and the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. announced an agreement Thursday to switch to significantly more energy-efficient set-top boxes, with the first steps starting next month. Although the agreement is voluntary, 15 top cable, satellite and telephone companies and their set-top box makers that serve more than 90 million U.S. homes have pledged to abide by it.
The trade groups projected that the moves could cut consumers' power bills by $1.5 billion annually once the agreement is fully implemented. Most of the savings will come from new set-tops that meet the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star 3.0 standards; those devices consume about 45% less power than conventional models.
The agreement calls for 90% of the set-tops purchased and deployed by pay-TV providers after 2013 to meet Energy Star 3.0, but it doesn't compel them to replace the boxes that are already in consumers' homes. As a result, it will take years to achieve much of the savings envisioned by the deal.
Still, pay-TV providers have agreed to take several steps in the next year to try to cut energy use right away. The cable operators who have signed on, including Comcast and Time Warner, have agreed to download new software to an estimated 10 million DVR-equipped set-tops that will stop their hard drives from spinning when the devices aren't recording -- something the industry calls a "light sleep" mode. Putting a box in "light sleep" cuts its power use by 20% to 30%, according to the cable industry.
The telephone companies that have endorsed the agreement, including AT&T and Verizon, will offer "light sleep" capabilities next year. And 90% of the new receivers deployed by DirecTV and DISH Network in 2013 will have a new feature that cuts their power consumption automatically when not in use.
In addition to lowering their customers' electricity bills, reducing set-top power consumption helps pay-TV providers by extending the boxes' life and lowering customer-service costs, said Ralph Brown, chief technologist at CableLabs, the cable industry's research and development arm. Perhaps more important, the CEA and NCTA hope the voluntary agreement will persuade the government not to set mandatory standards for set-tops, as regulators in Washington and Sacramento have started to explore. A similar voluntary effort in Europe recently satisfied the European Commission, which was considering set-top box energy standards as part of its Ecodesign Directive.
Whether U.S. environmental groups are mollified, however, remains to be seen. The industry held talks with the Natural Resources Defense Council and other advocacy groups to try to reach consensus on voluntary standards, but the negotiations hit a stalemate, said Neal Goldberg, general counsel of the cable trade association.
The NRDC issued a scathing report on set-top energy use last year, saying the roughly 160 million boxes in U.S. homes consumed $3 billion worth of electricity -- the equivalent of nine power plants' output. The group called for set tops to meet the EPA's as-yet unreleased Energy Star 4.0 standards, which is a higher bar than the industry's voluntary agreement sets. It also urged service providers to deploy one DVR per home that can record programs for TVs in multiple rooms, rather than having customers rent a DVR for each TV. Some service providers, including DISH and AT&T, have gone that direction, but the voluntary agreement announced Thursday doesn't push the cable industry to do so.
[Updated, 8:42 a.m. Dec. 6: Sure enough, the NRDC senior scientist Noah Horowitz blasted the agreement within minutes after it was announced. “It's good that cable and satellite companies recognize the need to provide consumers with set-top boxes that waste less energy," Horowitz said in a statement. "Unfortunately, their proposal is a far cry from what is needed to significantly decrease the $2 billion worth of electricity these devices waste each year.... The TV industry can and should implement new design features that incorporate power-saving technologies similar to those in today’s smart phones, which sip rather than gulp power when not in use."]
The challenge for the industry is finding ways to cut energy use without denying customers the features they've come to rely on. The hard drives in DVRs spin so much of the time because they're recording shows as they're being watched (in order to provide the pause and instant-replay functions) in addition to the ones that customers have programmed them to find and save. The boxes also communicate regularly with the service provider's network to keep their program guides updated.
CableLabs' Brown said the next generation of set-top box microchips will cut consumption considerably through better power management. Meanwhile, cable operators are looking at new approaches to program guides and box updates that could enable a "deep sleep" feature that reduces consumption to a trickle when the device is not in use. The agreement calls for cable operators to test "deep sleep" approaches and roll them out if they're feasible.
The voluntary agreement is set to last five years. By the time it expires, pay-TV services may be implementing much more radical approaches to cutting home energy use, such as providing all programs on demand and eliminating DVRs entirely. The limiting factor there isn't technology, however -- it's whether the studios are willing to make so great a leap.
Jon Healey writes editorials for The Times. Follow him on Twitter @jcahealey