Saturday, May 5, 2007

Because you Keep Asking...
Is The Digital TV Age Here Yet?

Did you miss it? It happened on March 1st and barely a word was written. No tears were shed. No pronouncements about the future of TV. As of March 1st, 2007, companies are restricted from importing analog TVs from foreign countries or trafficking in interstate commerce of analog sets. The transition to digital television is on! and since you keep asking me questions, I'll keep giving you the answers!

The bottom line is that retailers of Analog only TVs aren't allowed to buy any more to sell. Analog TVs are now officially dead. DOA...gone. You can still buy tube TVs, but they must have over the air digital tuners. So if big ugly TV's or little ugly TVs are your fashion fo-pah, you're in luck. The problem is that the cost of the ATSC tuner makes it pretty stupid to buy one of those instead of a flat panel or HDTV compatible TV of some sort.

So if you have any intentions of buying a new TV in say the next.....forever, may I suggest that you get your butt down to Costco and check out the future of television as we know it. The most fun to be had with the Digital Transition will come from watching cable, satellite and telco video providers battle it out over consumers trying to figure out how best to receive HDTV signals. The next 600 + days will be some of the most consumer friendly price wars and amazing special offers rule the day.

I'm constantly asked the question, since I work in HDTV, what this crap all means. Will I get HDTV on my current TV? Yes and no. It depends. Depends on what? You're wallet. Oh really? Yep, it's time to get the chastity belt off the thing and move into the digital age. If you're reading this, checking e-mail and got a cell phone. You're almost there. If not, well here are the answers to the top 10 questions I'm asked about the transition to digital. Sit back, read on, and enjoy the ride...

1. When will the transition from analog to DTV broadcasting occur?
The last day that local broadcasters can send out conventional “analog” television signals will be February 17, 2009. After that date, your local television broadcasters will broadcast exclusively digital television (DTV) signals that can be received only by digital TV's or converters. If you use a TV antenna you may want to go out an get another coat hanger!

2. Why will over-the-air broadcasting stop on the analog channels?
Our wonderful government passed a law in late 2005 requiring this change. TV broadcasts have used and improved on basic analog technology that was invented in the 1920s and 1930s. Congress found that by moving TV to much more efficient digital transmission, while offering more locally broadcast channels, plus HDTV programming, it takes less overall spectrum space.

3. What is this “Coupon” program they keep talking about?
Because millions of households rely on coat hangers for all or some of their TV viewing, Congress set aside up to $1.5 billion dollars to fund a program of “Coupon-Eligible Converter Boxes,” to be administered by another governmental beauracracy called the Department of Commerce or the NTIA. The law requires the NTIA to make available, to each household, up to two $40 electronic coupons that can be used at participating retailers (hmmm...Radio shack?) for “converter boxes” that will convert digital TV broadcasts to analog signals that can be received by the older (black & white) TVs. These coupons will be available only from the NTIA and applications to obtain them will be widely available. Coupons may be requested starting January 1, 2008, and will expire 90 days from issuance. The last coupons will be sent out by March 31, 2009 and may even include a special offer from Orville Reddenbacher. More on this as it comes along.

4. I now subscribe to really expensive cable or satellite. Do I need to be concerned about losing my TV signal because I'm hooked up to these services?
No. Cable operators pick up most local broadcasts at a central location and send them to homes over cable and charge a lot for this. Satellite services increasingly are able to do this as well and charge for it too. It is likely that they will continue to provide whatever free local broadcast programming they currently provide to you, even after there is this change in broadcasters’ means of transmission. Local broadcasters will be able to offer additional digital channels, some or all of which might not be carried, or carried in HDTV. The big bad cable operators might also move to “all digital” means of delivery, which could mean that even for your TVs that are hooked up, you would need to lease a “set top box” or have a TV with a digital cable tuner (such as one with a “CableCARD” slot) which mean one thing...more money!

5. What is DTV anyway?
Digital television or DTV means the broadcasting of digital television by local TV (not cable or satellite) broadcasters, as received directly by you using rabbit ears, roof-top antennas or that ever popular coat hanger. The signals are sent over the air to homes, by modern digital techniques rather than the older analog methods that are not as efficient and are of lower quality.

6. What is HDTV?
Ahh, the big question. High Definition Television HDTV is the highest quality version of DTV. There are also standard and enhanced systems. Not all DTV broadcasts are in HDTV and not all DTV receivers can display HDTV. Confused yet? Analog HDTV broadcasts in the U.S. will not be possible. If you have seen an HDTV broadcast, you've seen the bigger picture, better color, higher quality and the need for new furniture to house the damn thing!

7. Does my present TV have a DTV tuner? What about my VCR, DVD recorder, Tivo, etc.?
The only televisions that have DTV tuners are those that have been sold since about 1998. An HD set sold as a “monitor” or “HD-ready” is capable of displaying HDTV but does not have a built-in HDTV tuner. The FCC now requires that most TVs with analog tuners also be marketed with built-in or separate DTV or HDTV tuners, and this will soon be a requirement for all TVs— so most of the TVs you see nowadays in stores will be DTV or HDTV “built-in” products. Be sure to check, however, just in case one is not and get that wallet ready!

8. I now rely on a coat hanger for at least one TV that does not have a DTV tuner. What are my other options? Do plastic coat hangers work now?
You could subscribe to a cable, satellite, or other program delivery service that carries the broadcast programming and will cost you some coin. To continue to rely on that coat hanger, you will need an external DTV Broadcast Converter product such as one of those Converter Boxes I talked about a while ago. If your set is an HD Monitor (sometimes called “HD-ready”) you are likely to want a tuner that can display HDTV broadcasts in full HDTV resolution rather than “downconverting” them to a lesser format. Coupon-Eligible Converter Boxes will not have HDTV outputs. If your set is a “standard” television, you will likely want to obtain a Coupon-Eligible Converter Box. For up-to-date information, check at or

9. If I am shopping for a new TV and I'm in Circuit City or Costco, what does the February 17, 2009 shutoff of the analog channels mean to me?
Dropping some coin. If you plan to purchase a new TV that will rely on a coat hanger, you will want to make sure that it has a built-in HDTV or DTV tuner. Even after DTV tuners are required in all new TVs, there will still be some products sold as “monitors” that do not have any tuner at all. So don't be tricked. Read the specs on what you buy!

10. What else do I need to know about HDTV?
HDTV is the more general name for showing video in a new and better format—a wider screen with about 5 times the picture information and 5 times the cost. All types of video displays—conventional picture tubes which are going to be hard to get due to other governmental regulations, various projection TVs, Plasma or LCD “flat panels”—can show HDTV if they are designed to handle all of this video information in this format. You can expect a product to tune or display HDTV only if it was sold or advertised as such. If your existing black and white TV is not HD-capable it will not display an HDTV signal in full quality, even if an “HDTV broadcast converter” is attached to it. You see, they got your wallet, now open it up. If your existing set is HD-capable it should display an HDTV quality picture when an HDTV broadcast converter is attached, but it will display only a standard quality picture from the converter that you were forced to buy. For your existing TV that cannot handle HDTV, a converter should tune the HDTV broadcast channels, but provide them to your set in the standard quality format that your set can display but I'd just drop a little coin and get into the digital age.

For further information on display formats, see the Consumer Electronics Association’s Guide to Digital Television or the Big Governmental Body known as the FCC or this really good website on the Digital Transition!

I hope this information has scared you a bit. We're entering a new area a knowledge is important. I'll keep you up-to-date on what's happening in the future. Until then...