The era of digital TV broadcasting has begun. The question remains: Are you ready?
As of June 12, 2009, nearly all over-the-air analog TV transmission will cease in the United States. Some stations will continue with a so-called “analog nightlight” service until July 11–providing information about the DTV transition and notifying unprepared TV viewers of emergencies, such as hurricanes. And low-power stations will continue analog broadcasts for some time (see below). But by and large, analog stations will be completing the transition to digital broadcasting that started several years ago.
How does it affect you? For the vast majority of Americans, the answer will be “not at all.” Anyone receiving TV signals via cable, fiber networks, or satellite should see no change or interruption in service. Similarly, anyone who’s already watching digital TV broadcasts (which includes HDTV) via an antenna is already good to go. But millions of old analog TV sets using just an antenna will go blank, displaying the snowy screen that for decades has meant the lack of a TV signal. No matter which channel their owners tune to, or how long they wait, the snow will remain.
If you’re included in that latter group–or if you’re a neighbor or relative of someone who’s still an analog antenna-only TV viewer–there’s no reason to panic. There’s no need to buy a new TV. This guide will help you save those old TVs from a snowy death. But the clock is ticking: those who want to restore their TV service will need to apply for subsidized coupons by July 31, 2009. Read on for details.
What is changing, and why?
The U.S. government, after more than 10 years trying to work with TV broadcasters and consumer electronics companies, originally decreed that February 17, 2009 would be the date when almost all over-the-air analog TV broadcasts would cease. Then, in a last minute change, Congress delayed the transition to June 12, for a variety of reasons–the most important being that the government-subsidized coupon program ran out of money.
One reason for turning off analog broadcasts has to do with technological progress. The old method of broadcasting TV over-the-air, perfected in the 1940s using analog signals, is incredibly inefficient compared with the new method using digital television (DTV) signals. Just as a car works better than a horse and buggy does covering long distances, digital works better than analog when broadcasting TV signals (and conveying many other kinds of information).
Another big reason is money. In March 2008, the FCC held an auction to sell off the “spectrum,” or the part of the airwaves that used to carry analog TV broadcasts, to private companies, which netted the government a record $19.6 billion. Part of the spectrum remains public property and will be used for things such as emergency broadcasts.
How does the DTV transition affect me?
If you have cable, fiber, or satellite TV service, it does not affect you. Only older, analog TVs hooked up to an over-the-air antenna will go blank starting in February. The DTV transition has nothing to do with cable, satellite, Fios, or any other pay-TV service. However, cable has business interests, separate from the DTV transition, that may affect analog-only cable subscribers.
If you don’t have cable or satellite, you don’t need to buy a new TV. Despite what the salesman in the TV store may say, or what you may read elsewhere on the Web, you can continue watching free, over-the-air television on your current TV, no matter how old or non-flat it is. Here’s how.
What you do need to buy is a little “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. It should only cost at most $20 total because the government has set up a coupon program for people whose TVs receive analog over-the-air broadcasts. Each coupon is worth $40 toward the purchase of approved boxes (full list of boxes) at any retailer selling them, and each household can have up to two coupons–a good thing since each TV needs its own box. The boxes sell for around $60 at most, but we expect prices to fall to as low as $40 later in the year. Here’s a comparison of a few DTV converter boxes reviewed by CNET.
To get your $40 converter box coupon(s), call 888-DTV-2009 . The coupon program is expected to be refunded as part of an economic stimulus program. After you provide your information, the government will send the coupon(s) to your address. You can then go to an approved electronics retailer (full list of retailers, PDF), such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, RadioShack, Sam’s Club, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart, and use the coupon(s) toward the purchase of a converter box or two. Note that this program is scheduled to expire as of July 31, 2009, so time is of the essence.
Now that I have the DTV converter box, what do I do?
Hook it up to your TV using your current antenna. Each converter box is equipped with an antenna input that should fit your current antenna. And yes, even those rabbit ears from 1959 might work just fine. 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. The box’s manual will guide you through the setup process, which will involve hookup and an automatic tuning step, where the box searches your local airwaves for the new digital channels. If it can find all of them, you’re done.
With the box installed, you can again watch free, over-the-air TV. It works just like it did before, although you may have to use the box’s remote to change channels. The channels should be the same as before–ABC on DTV still has Desperate Housewives, just like analog ABC–and there may even be some new channels. If you get a strong signal, the picture will almost certainly be clearer than what you’re used to with your old analog connection. It won’t be HDTV, however. To watch high-def at home, you will need to buy a new TV, which will have a DTV tuner built-in.
Even with the new box, you might not get all the channels you’re used to. DTV does provide clearer picture and sound quality than your old analog TV…as long as you can receive it. Some locations, antennas, and antenna placements work better than others, so if you’re missing some channels, first try futzing with the antenna. If that doesn’t work, you might need a new antenna; the Web site antennaweb.org is a great place to start. Be sure to get an antenna with a return policy, though, because even a newer antenna might not grab all the stations you want. If you happen to live in a place where DTV signals can’t reach you, then pay TV like cable or satellite might be the only answer.
Rescan your available channels frequently. As analog stations shut down (between February and July 2009), broadcasters may reorient digital antennas and crank up the power on digital broadcasts. By initiating the digital tuner’s automatic channel scan, you may find new DTV channels that weren’t viewable in your area days or weeks earlier.
What is DTV?
DTV” can apply to either the broadcast system or the television itself. We’ve been talking about the broadcasts so far, which are basically millions of ones and zeros blasted through the airwaves by the same antenna towers that today blast analog signals. To turn those signals into images and sound requires an ATSC tuner, either built into the TV (all TVs sold in the U.S. since March 2007 are required to have an ATSC tuner) or into an external box, such as a satellite receiver, TiVo HD, DVD recorder, PC video card, or, more commonly, one of the converter boxes we mentioned before.”DTV” can also signify a type of television. If a TV has a built-in ATSC tuner, or if it can display HDTV images, you may see it called a DTV or “digital television,” although it’s much more common to call it an “HDTV.” All HDTVs are DTVs, but it’s possible to get a DTV that isn’t an HDTV–one that receives digital broadcasts, but can’t display them in true high-def. For more details on HDTVs, check out the HDTV basics section of our TV Buying Guide.
What about digital cable, satellite, FiOS, IPTV, and all that?
All of those TV sources depend on digital information, but none are the DTV we’ve been talking about. We’re talking only about television broadcast over-the-air, for free, that you can watch using an antenna and an ATSC tuner.
Although the switch-off of analog channels should not affect cable subscribers directly, we expect that some cable companies may use the transition as an excuse to get more of their analog customers to go digital. According to the FCC, “If a cable company makes the business decision to go all-digital (meaning it will stop offering any channels to its customers in analog), it must ensure that its analog customers can continue to watch their local broadcast stations. This may require customers with analog televisions to get a set-top box.” In other words, if you currently get cable by connecting your analog TV directly to the wall, with no cable box, you may be in for some changes yourself. It all depends on your local cable provider, so check with them for details.