Time ticking down on analog TV broadcasts

I received a recorded message from my satellite television provider a few weeks ago, letting me know that if I’d like to upgrade my equipment, I could receive the new digital television broadcasts right through my satellite box, with no additional converter box needed, all for a modest price.

Zenith DTV Converter BoxThis Zenith DTV converter box is a top pick.

The message was caged in a helpful tone, but I knew immediately that the intent was to encourage people to needlessly upgrade their satellite boxes when all most of them really needed to do was spend about $10 to $20 on a separate convertor box thanks to the federal government’s coupon program.

Granted, if you’ve already got two, three, four, five… however many boxes connected to your television, putting your satellite and your digital broadcast equipment in one box might be a great convenience, at least until one function breaks or you change providers.

Unfortunately, the satellite company’s sales tactic also seems likely to add to the existing confusion about the digital television transition, especially after many months of messages to consumers about customers of cable and satellite television providers not needing to worry about the transition.

Even though the Coastal Point has already covered this issue earlier in 2008 as the coupon program got under way and even though the education efforts by broadcasters and the government have significantly improved since that time, this remains a most difficult issue to explain and for the average television viewer to understand.

And it is all the more important in this area, where analog television broadcasts have historically been so poor in quality that many have felt they had no option but to pay for cable or satellite or for large rooftop antennas. In fact, some consumers may find that all the TV they want will be available to them for free with the transition, or nearly free.

Get your coupons now

So, have you bought your digital TV converter box yet? No? Well, time is running out! The federal government is requiring high-powered television stations to cut off analog broadcast signals on Feb. 17, 2009, to free up the frequencies for use by emergency agencies.

That means if you’re watching any television programming from an over-the-air antenna (rooftop or rabbit ears) and you don’t have a newer television, your time for free TV is nearly at an end – unless you get a converter box.

And that deadline is doubly urgent if you want to take advantage of the government’s DTV converter box coupons – two $40 coupons that you can use to buy converter boxes at a local electronics reatailer, so you can continue to watch over-the-air signals once the shift to digital has taken place.

Officials are urging consumers to apply for their free coupons by Dec. 31, 2008, because it takes about six weeks to process the applications for the coupons, and mailing them will take another 10 days. The coupons themselves are only available through March 31, 2009, or while supplies last. Most boxes will cost you between no additional cost and $40 more with your coupons.

So, if you have any reason to think you might want to watch some over-the-air television before you buy your next TV, you may want to spend some quality time this week to apply for your coupons, just in case. They’re good for 90 days and cannot be reissued or replaced, nor can their value be refunded if you don’t like the converter box you get, so once you have them, plan your purchase wisely and hold on to them like cash.

Do you need a converter box?

Now, I know some of you are thinking that you don’t watch broadcast television so you don’t have to worry about this DTV transition. That may be true, but the truth can be a little complicated, and while efforts at consumer education on the issue have been ongoing, there’s no shortage of misleading information out there. So, here, as simple as I can make it, is how you know whether you might want to pick up a
converter box:

(1) Do you watch local broadcast stations through an over-the-air antenna – “rabbit ears” inside or a big rooftop antenna?

If your answer is “yes” and you want to continue watching broadcast TV, the next thing you’ll want to do is have a look at your televisions – all of them. Are any of them more than 18 months old? Chances are you’ve got at least one older set lying around, even if it’s in a guest bedroom or home office.

While you’re doing that inventory, don’t assume that even your newish LCD TV is exempt from being a concern. TVs sold prior to May 25, 2007, did not require a notice that they did not include the digital converter required to display a DTV signal. And it’s likely at least a few slipped through that requirement and were sold without that notice, too. They often went at bargain prices around that deadline, so if you got a deal, be doubly suspicious.

So, how do you know if your TV is ready? Labels or markings may have contained the words “Integrated Digital Tuner” or “Digital Tuner Built-In,” with “Receiver” possibly substituted for “Tuner,” and “DTV,” “ATSC,” or “HDTV” (high definition television) substituted for “Digital.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, if your television equipment contains any of these labels or markings, you should be able to view digital over-the-air programming without the need for a digital-to-analog converter box. And, frankly, the easiest way to handle this whole transition is to upgrade to a new, digital-ready TV if you don’t already have one. But what if you bought one recently and you’re not sure?

TVs labeled as “Digital Monitor” or “HDTV Monitor,” or as “Digital Ready” or “HDTV Ready,” may not necessarily include a digital tuner, so you may still need to do some work to retain your free TV after February.

If your TV is labeled as “analog” or “NTSC” but is not labeled as containing a digital tuner, it contains an analog tuner only, and you’re going to want to take some steps to keep the free TV fountain flowing.

Still not sure? Local station WMDT, Channel 47, and its CW network affiliate, Channel 3, switched on their digital signals on Oct. 1, so try tuning in to Channel 47 via your antenna and see what you get.

If you have a TV that scans for available programming to set up a list of active channels, run that scanning process again and see if Channel 47 pops up for you. If it does, and it’s in better condition than you remember seeing over your rabbit ears before, congratulations – you’ve got a digital-ready TV, and you need worry no further. No converter boxes for you!

On the other hand, if you’re not digital-ready…

(2) Do you subscribe to cable or satellite television? If so – despite the come-on from some of these providers – there’s essentially nothing for you to worry about as far as that programming is concerned, regardless of what type of televisions you own.

Cable and satellite television generally arrives at your TV already in digital form, so the programming you’re getting now will not be interrupted and won’t require new equipment just for the transition. And if that’s all the television you watch, you can feel free to sit back in your recliner and breathe a sigh of relief. But…

(3) Do you subscribe to cable or satellite television for your analog TVs, but you still watch your local stations over the air? Or, you might want to have a backup source of TV with local information in an emergency?

This hybrid TV consumer is pretty common in this area, where we’ve been forced to choose between: (a) massive rooftop antenna arrays in an effort to catch a slim bit of fuzzy signal from Salisbury or Dover, (b) paying for cable and (c) giving up ABC, CBS and the CW network programming due to local stations refusing to permit satellite providers to offer us “distant network” programming.

For those who have suffered through what the FCC considers “acceptable” television signal, the DTV transition is likely to be good news in most cases. Instead of half-heard dialogue and fuzzy images, with a digital-ready TV or a converter box on your analog TV, you’ll likely be getting a solid signal for me in, well, ever.

There’s also a chance you may find your favorite half-tuned-in station simply went away.

Lost in the digital canyon

That’s what some viewers in the Wilmington, N.C., area experienced in September when stations there did an early test of the analog shutoff. Viewers who were on the edges of the stations’ broadcast area found out the hard way that digital signals don’t travel as far as their analog counterparts. Instead of the anticipated switch from fuzzy signals to crisp digital ones, they got a black screen.

Now, we know from anecdotal reports locally as some of the Salisbury, Md., based stations have turned on their digital transmitters that many of our local broadcast stations are coming in on beach-area televisions better than ever. But until all of those stations turn off their analog signals, it won’t be clear how each individual household in this area will be affected, especially given the variety of antennas, home locations, settings and other variables found here.

Some stations testing the transition ahead of the February deadline to shut off analog broadcasts have taken the test concept a bit further, using their analog stations to broadcast information on the transition while switching their regular programming to their new digital broadcasts.

The result is that people in those areas who aren’t yet digital-ready saw a number to call for information on how to get digital-ready and those who were already digital-ready could be confident they were getting the new signals because they could see them with their own eyes.

With that kind of test as a model, the U.S. Senate is considering a bill – labeled the “TV nightlight bill” – that would allow stations to keep their analog signals on the air for a few weeks past the Feb. 17 shutoff date. The bill would allow some stations to continue to broadcast in analog for up to 30 days, but they could not continue to broadcast their regular programming, which would continue on their digital channels. Instead, they would show digital TV or emergency information.

Congress has also been working on legislation that would allow stations to add additional broadcast towers to repeat their digital signals to all of their analog coverage areas, to try to combat this fall-off problem.

Now, this is in the form of a permission to do so and not a requirement, so whether those who are lost in the fall-off zone will actually get help will be up to the broadcasters, who will have to spend a significant chunk of change to add new broadcast facilities.

Issues such as these only serve to complicate an already confusing process for consumers. But you can expect many of the kinks to be worked out of the process in the coming months.

In the meantime, preparation at home is the one thing most consumers can take into their own hands. So, if you have any TVs that are not digital-ready, it may be time to order those coupons and start picking out a converter box or two.

New options for broadcasters, consumers

Now, the benefits of this transition are many, despite the hassles involved. In addition to freeing up signal spectrum for emergency use and potentially improving the picture and sound quality for consumers, the change also creates a wider range of options for broadcast stations in terms of their programming.

Stations are already taking advantage of the change to broadcast in high-definition – including some local stations. So, even beyond the improvements from analog signals to digital ones, the consumer can reap the benefits. (High definition, of course, requires a HDTV – all of which now come with a digital tuner built in, as one more reason to upgrade.

Some stations are also splitting up their normal broadcasts to create separate broadcasts tailored to different demographics in their audience, such as broadcasting in Spanish on one signal and in English on another or with a selection of programming for younger viewers on one signal and for adults on another.

This even allows detailed localization, giving Delmarva stations the option – if they so choose – to broadcast separate selections for the beach areas and for inland audiences.

And if you find that you’re not getting all the channels you’d like, or if you’d like more, it’s an opportune time for an antenna upgrade. Consider ditching the rabbit ears for a modern outdoor antenna – not nearly as big as the old models. It’s possible that with the right antenna you could get significantly more broadcast channels that you ever did before.

If that idea appeals or if you find yourself needing more antenna oomph once digital signals are the rule, visit the Web site at www.antennaweb.org. There, you can plug in your address and home type to get a full report on which television stations you may be able to receive and exactly what type of antenna will bring them into your television.

Antennas are color-coded based on their best use, and you’ll find a range of colors for antennas that will bring in the stations you may want. Just pick the strongest antenna needed to bring in your most distant station, orient it to the direction recommended by the service, hook up to your TV or converter box and tune in your new stations.

While you’re examining your television setup for the transition, also know that the tuner in your VCRs and other recording equipment won’t be able to directly pick up the digital over-the-air programs for recording. Instead, the input to the VCR must be connected to the output of the DTV converter box and you must set the tuner in the DTV converter box to the channel you want to record prior to the start of each recording period programmed in the VCR.

One final note for those cable and satellite customers who thought they were out of the woods: You may find your provider is switching your favorite programming out of their analog spectrum and onto a newer digital one. That could mean dwindling programming choices and, over time, pressure mounting to move to a higher-end programming option and equipment.

Not only does that mean a potential outlay of cash for new equipment and digital programming but also a loss of return for those who stick with the older systems, since programming costs don’t usually go down when programming is removed from the tier you currently receive.

There’s not much you can do about this except complain to the provider and ask for compensation in the form of credits or a cost reduction on the higher-end tiers the providers would like you to move to. It’s also a topic for discussion when your municipal government next considers its cable franchising contract.

Bottom line: You don’t have to buy a new TV to continue to enjoy your free broadcast TV. And you can get a converter box for next to nothing with your government coupons. But being an educated consumer throughout this process will let you take best advantage of all of the changes that are under way to television programming and make the most of your options.

For more information on the DVT transition, visit the following Web sites: www.DTVanswers.com, www.DTVtransition.org, www.CE.org and www.digitaltvtrainer.com.