Analog to DTV: Don't be left in the dark

March 17, 2008 8:50:15 AM PDT
On Feb. 17, 2009, television broadcasters will change how they send programming to your television. The switch from analog to digital means TVs that receive free over-the-air programming will need to be upgraded to digital. Here's everything you need to know about the switchover and how to upgrade your television set.

The Basics

Of the more than 107 million households that have television, about 13 million households (roughly 12 percent) still have analog-only reception; that's the free, old way of broadcasting. People with those older, analog TVs can do one of three things to make their TVs capable of receiving a digital signal: Subscribe to cable or satellite service.

Buy a new digital-ready TV.

Get a converter box.

A converter box is the easiest and the cheapest way, and there's a government-funded program to help subsidize the cost of the converters. The problem is that not enough people know about the switchover, much less the availability of converter boxes.

How Do I Know if I Need to Do Anything?

If you get your signal via cable or satellite, the change doesn't affect you. Only older, analog TVs that use "rabbit ear" antennas or roof-top antennas need to be converted by next February.

The DTV transition has nothing to do with cable, satellite or any other pay TV service. If your TV has a built-in digital tuner, you don't need to do anything.

How Can I Tell Whether My TV Has a Digital Tuner?

See if it has the letters DTV or ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee), which refers to the American digital TV standard. Check your owner's manual if you still have it or try to look up the model on the Internet. All TVs sold in the United States since March 2007 are required to have an ATSC tuner. A TV designated "HD-ready" or "HDTV monitor" does not have a built-in ATSC tuner, which means you must supplement it with a converter box or subscribe to cable or satellite.

If I Don't Have Cable or Satellite, Do I Need to Subscribe? Or Do I Need to Buy a New Digital TV?

You don't need to buy a new TV, no matter what anyone tells you. All you need to continue watching free, over-the-air television on your current TV is a DTV converter box.

What you do need to buy is a set-top "DTV converter box" that fits on top of your old TV, connects to your old antenna and lets you watch the new DTV broadcasts. The box can also connect to a VCR or DVD recorder. You can buy it at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, Radio Shack.

How Much Will It Cost Me?

It should only cost you between $10 and $20 total, because the government has set up a coupon program. Each coupon is worth $40 toward the purchase of approved boxes, and each household can have up to two coupons -- a good thing because each TV needs its own box.

Right now stores such as Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart are selling the boxes for about $60. Once you receive your coupon, you must use it within 90 days.

How Do I Get the Coupons?

You can order them on line at www.dtv2009.gov . You can also call for coupons at 888-DTV-2009 (or 1-888-388-2009). By mail, send an application to P.O. Box 2000, Portland, OR 97208-2000

How Do I Use the Converter Box?

Hook it up to your old TV using your old antenna. Each converter box is equipped with an antenna input that should fit your current antenna. The boxes have outputs to connect to an older TV's antenna input, as well as standard red, white, and yellow AV outputs, to connect to a newer TV's matching inputs. They should also include the required cables.

Setup involves hookup and an automatic tuning step, where the box searches your local airwaves for the new digital channels.

Once It's Hooked Up, Will I Notice a Difference?

If you get a strong signal, the picture will almost certainly be clearer than what you're used to with your old analog connection. The sound quality will be improved as well. It won't be HDTV, however.

Digital also allows broadcasters to "multicast." So while ABC will still show "Desperate Housewives" on the same channel as before, it can also send programming on a digital channel as well.

What If Some of My TVs Are Hooked Up to Satellite and Some Aren't?

This happens in a lot of homes. Consumer Reports says 6 percent of paid TV subscribers have at least one analog TV in their home. The TVs in the rooms where families gather usually get their signal from pay TV, because those are generally the bigger, newer, plasma, maybe even high def TV's. But the little ones in the kitchen are generally still smaller, older analog sets for free, over-the-air programming.

So those are the ones that can either be added to the cable or satellite service, or converted with one of the converter boxes. Of particular concern are older TV owners who really don't understand the difference between DTV and HDTV, and many are confused as to what they need to buy. AARP said the switch to DTV could have the biggest impact on them -- most of them have older TVs, and they watch more TV than any other group -- almost 5.5 hours per day.

Broadcasters have already begun airing public service announcements to educate the public on the change, so you're likely to see PSAs on your TV. The government is starting to put pressure on broadcasters to increase their awareness campaigns.

If I Buy a New Digital-Ready TV, What Should I Do with My Old TV? Throw It Out?

No! Don't just throw electronics into the garbage. Dangerous toxic substances can trickle down into groundwater or get released into the air. Go to sites such as mygreenelectronics.org to find out where you can safely recycle your TV and any other electronics in your area.

Why Are We Doing This?

Congress is mandating the transition to digital and auctioning off the analog end of the spectrum to wireless carriers and companies such as Google for mobile broadband projects. They expect to raise up to $15 billion in this high-priced yard sale. They're keeping a portion of the spectrum for police and public emergency use.

More DTV Resources

www.hearusnow.org A Consumers Union project is one good place to start. It offers links, background, and a free Consumer Reports guide. Antennaweb.org Source: Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)

Choosing and Installing an Antenna for HDTV Source: CrutchfieldAdvisor.com An excellent resource for those looking to learn more about digital, over-the-air reception, with detailed information about different kinds of antennas and how to install them.

DTV2009.gov Source: National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), U.S. Department of Commerce The essential resource for converter box coupons. Good, basic information, and it's multilingual, to boot.

DTVAnswers.com Source: National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)

DTVTransition.org Source: DTV Transition Coalition (a group of associations, retailers and manufacturers involved in DTV) Links to approved converter boxes, also in Spanish.

DTV.gov Source: Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

Andrea Smith is a technology reporter with ABCNews Radio.

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