Digital TV Transition Survival Guide

Flat Panel TVFor most of today’s primetime audience, the questions are simple. For example: Which HDTV to buy? Whether to catch tonight’s episodes of The Office and Grey’s Anatomy or record them to DVR instead? And, of course, our personal favorite: Why the heck am I paying $60 a month again for basic cable when ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN are all offering dozens of videos for free download off their websites? But according to the FCC and Nielsen, for nearly one in five of America’s 114.5 million television viewing households, there could potentially be another biggie early next year: Where did my signal go?!

At midnight on February 17, 2009, the government will officially cease over-the-air analog TV broadcasts and make the exclusive jump to digital television. The decision to do so wasn’t undertaken lightly, considering that around 12% of the nation still doesn’t utilize digital service, and 18% (roughly 20 million homes) have at least one set that relies exclusively on analog transmissions. But given digital television’s improved performance (including sharper picture, the ability to add more free channels, and potential support for interactive, game-like elements) and the need to free up the broadcast spectrum, or airwaves, for local emergency services (e.g. 911, police, fire, etc.), the jump was all but inevitable.

As a side note: the FCC also turned a tidy $19.6 billion auctioning off the 700Mhz wireless spectrum, previously associated with analog broadcasts, to corporations such as Dish Network, Verizon Wireless and AT&T back in March. For the record, although they “don’t get to keep the money” according to spokesmen, in this economy, the cash should come in handy for our government in general. Rather than worry over how much of that’ll eventually get burned on the $700 billion financial bailout package though, let’s focus on the more pressing issue at-hand: What you need to know to survive the impending digital TV transition.

Who Is Affected

If you subscribe to cable or satellite, relax. It’s only those relying on free over-the-air analog broadcasts (read: using TVs with “rabbit ears” or rooftop antennas) who stand to lose signal. While a call to your cable or satellite TV provider may be warranted to confirm you’ve got all the everything correctly configured at home, there’s otherwise no need to fret. 

If you own a digital TV, a.k.a. DTV (one with a built-in digital tuner), you’re also good to go. That doesn’t mean you have to have a high-definition television (HDTV) though, which accepts 720p resolution or higher-quality 16:9 widescreen broadcasts. A standard-definition, or SD, digital TV will work just fine, and costs about the same as an analog equivalent. Thankfully, as of March 1, 2007, any TV shipped throughout or imported into the US is mandated by law to include a digital tuner. Retailers are further required to provide consumer alerts in-store advising whether any back inventory they’re offering for sale is an analog model. Therefore, if you do decide to make an upgrade, it should be relatively easy to find a set. Even if, that is, despite there never having been a better excuse to go HD, justifying the jump to a 52-inch plasma is still going to be a tough sell to your spouse.

If you have an analog TV that relies on free over-the-air transmissions, you’ll need to make one of three changes.

• For starters, a simple converter box ($40-$80), available from any major retailer, will allow your tried and true living room staple to continue receiving free broadcasts. You’ll need one for every analog device (say, a TV or VCR) that has an analog tuner and needs to receive digital signals. Thankfully, each American household is eligible for two coupons, good for $40 off on the purchase of a converter, which are being offered free through March 31, 2009. To obtain yours, call 1-888-DTV-2009, fax a request to 1-877-DTV-4ME2 or visit www.dtv2009.gov, and they’ll be mailed right to your doorstep.

• Upgrade to satellite or cable.

• Purchase a television with a digital tuner. Note that sets advertised as “HDTV ready” or “Digital ready” may not contain this device. For clarification, always research online before buying and, when it doubt, ask your local sales clerk. 

Time-Saving Tips

Don’t toss analog sets, even if you pass on buying a converter. After all, it’s not like they’ll stop working with older electronics like VCRs and game systems (Buckaroo Banzai and Pitfall, here we come!). And with 2.5 million tons of eWaste generated annually according to the EPA, even with regional electronics recycling programs and privatized solutions alike now offered, well – please, won’t you think of the children?

Order coupons today. Good for three months from mailing, you might as well get yourself prepared, especially with a variety of converter box models currently on or preparing to hit the market. We don’t even want to think of how many procrastinators will wait until the last minute, causing potential delivery delays and headaches next Valentine’s Day.

Test to ensure everything’s working beforehand. Many cable providers are already broadcasting digital signals well in advance of the changeover. There’s no reason you can’t take 15 minutes to ensure everything’s setup, connected and ready to go on your end before discovering there’s a sudden fire that needs putting out when you should be comfortably watching Dancing with the Stars instead.

Hang onto battery-operated sets. Battery-operated converter boxes are also available for these models.

Make the most of online resources. You’ll find FAQs answering virtually any other question you might have courtesy of the FCC, DTV Transition Coalition and National Association of Broadcasters readily available, among other options.

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