Digital Conversion Looming: What Will Happen to My TV, and When?

January 15, 2009

analog TV

By Terry Smiljanich:

By now, just about everyone’s heard that come February 17, 2009, television broadcast stations were supposed to switch to 100% digital broadcasting, ending the era of analog broadcasting in effect since the inception of television. That deadline has now been postponed to June 12, 2009, with the House voting 264 to 158 in agreeing with the Senate to give the government more time to get its act together. When the new deadline comes, does this still mean you have to go out and buy new television sets? Will you still be able to watch the next episode of “Lost” or “American Idol?”

Chances are good that you will not be affected in any way. Many household TVs already have the necessary digital tuners needed to receive the exclusive digital broadcasts starting soon. An estimated 21 million households, however, still receive TV signals entirely over the air.

Here’s how to find out if the transition poses any issues for you.

  1. Do you have a relatively new TV set, purchased since 2004? Almost all TV sets sold since 2004 have digital tuners in them, so you are ready to go.
  2. Did you buy your set after May, 2007? All TVs sold after that date have to carry a warning if they do not have a digital tuner.
  3. Do you have an HDTV set? Again, you have a digital tuner and need do nothing more.
  4. Does your set carry an “NTSC” label on it? If so, it has an analog tuner, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks a digital tuner as well.
  5. Do you receive your TV programming through cable or satellite service? Check with your provider, but it’s almost certain that you will continue to receive your cable or satellite signals since your provider is already taking care of any conversion issues.
  6. Still uncertain? Do you have your owner’s manual? Check it to see if it mentions a digital tuner. If you don’t have your original manual, the information is most likely available by searching for information on your model on the internet.
  7. Do you only receive your television signals by outside antenna or rabbit ears? Unless it’s a fairly new TV set with both analog and digital tuners, you will stop receiving TV signals unless you take further steps.
  8. Turn to a channel that has no station assigned to it. If you see snow, you have an analog TV.
  9. Look on the back of your TV set. If it has a “digital input” connection, you’ve got a digital tuner.

The FCC has a very good website with answers to the most frequent questions about the difference between analog and digital TVs and how to tell them apart.

No need to throw away the old set, however, if you’re stuck with an analog TV set. Digital-to-analog converters are available that will allow your TV set to convert the new digital signals into analog signals your TV can interpret. Such digital converters are available for about $40, a lot cheaper than a new TV set. Not only that, but the FCC is offering every household up to two $40 coupons toward the purchase of such converters. To get your coupons, go to the government website set up for applications.

There are problems, however, with the converters and the government program. The converter boxes only do an adequate job of converting the digital signals, and reports have shown that they can suffer from image degradation. If you want the best quality reception, you will probably be better off going ahead and buying a new digital TV.

The government coupon program sounds good, until you hear that more than a million people have applied for the conversion coupons and the FCC has run out of money to supply them.

Due to these problems, President Obama asked Congress to delay implementation of the conversion program. On January 26, the Senate unanimously voted to delay implementation of the digital conversion to June 13, 2009.

The House took up the measure on January 27, but postponed a final tally of the votes. It then voted in favor of the delay on February 5, extending the deadline to June 12, 2009.

What about those conversion box coupons that viewers have already received? They will be reissued “upon request” of the recipient. In other words, it looks like you will have to go through  these procedures all over again. It’s good to know the government remains as efficient as ever.

Don’t wait. Check your own situation and start preparing for the inevitable conversion.