Are the new 4K Vizio SmartCast TVs really TVs?

Believe it or not, that's a legitimate question, because spec sheets for the new Vizio P-series models indicate that they're "tuner free." And, based on information from the Consumer Technology Association, an HDTV must be equipped with a tuner that can receive and decode ATSC terrestrial digital transmissions. That's what lets consumers use an antenna to get local broadcasts from ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC.

Without the tuner, Vizio SmartCast sets can't be promoted as TVs. In fact, when we checked the company's website, we noticed that the P-series sets are now marketed as displays, although there is still an occasional reference to them as TVs.

In a statement sent to us by Vizio, the company defended the decision to not include a tuner in P-series models, saying that its research showed that less than 10 percent of TV viewers receive over-the-air-broadcast programs. "As we continually evaluate and focus on designing products that deliver a beautifully simple experience, we felt that removing the tuner would simplify the overall setup and user experience for the vast majority of customers."

Vizio added that P-Series users can play content from nearly all other sources, including most cable/satellite set-top boxes, game consoles, Blu-ray players, and more. "If consumers use an external 'rabbit ear' antenna to watch local over-the-air broadcast TV signals, a TV tuner can be purchased separately,” the company added.

Eliminating the tuner could also save the company a few dollars.

The timing of the decision is still a bit curious, given the growing trend toward cord cutting. To the best of our recollection, it's been close to a decade since Consumer Reports tested an HDTV without an ATSC tuner. And yet, Vizio appears to be expanding its tuner-free approach. On the company's website, it says that almost all upcoming Vizio SmartCast 4K UHD displays will be manufactured without a tuner., incuding all P‑ and M‑series models and most E‑series Vizio SmartCast sets. All D-series models will include a built‑in tuner.

Because most households have cable or another pay-TV service, they will not be affected by this move. But it very well could impact the growing segment of the population that is leaving cable behind, opting instead for programming received via an over-the-air antenna and streaming.

If you're among that crowd and want to watch over-the-air broadcasts, you'll have to spring for an external TV tuner—also known as an outboard TV tuner—which typically costs $40 to $100.

Vizio does provide information on that prospect through the "Learn More About Tuner-Free Displays" page. You'll get a fairly comprehensive explanation and a very good FAQ about what tuners do and what you'll need to buy if you want your set to receive over-the-air broadcasts.

How many people will click the hard-to-find link on the Vizio site before they bring their new TV home? That's another big question.