Counting Down To the Digital Deadline

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 21, 2007

TV as most people have known it has a little more than two years to live.

No, the TV cops won't come kicking down your door to terminate your old set on Feb. 17, 2009, the date Congress has set for analog broadcasts to end. But on that date your favorite shows could turn to static, as over-the-air TV is reduced to a digital stream that only the right kind of set can decode.

"The right kind" includes the stylish flat-screen sets that dominate most electronics stores. But that doesn't mean you'll need a $1,500 plasma screen and a $100-a-month cable or satellite subscription to keep watching your favorite shows.

It can be a lot simpler and cheaper than that. The mass-market future of digital TV just might be a tabletop set -- something as low as $200 -- that pulls in a signal over the air for free. Think of the old days of rabbit-ear antennas, except that the picture is as clear as a DVD.

"Free TV worth watching" was one of the basic promises of digital TV all along. But that promise got lost when this upgrade debuted as a luxury item, in the form of enormous, expensive high-definition models. Digital became synonymous with high-def, even though HDTV -- as great as it is to watch on a big screen -- is only one kind of digital TV offering.

Now that we're nearing the end of analog, digital TV is returning to one of its core selling points. Over the past year, a wide variety of TVs, including the cathode-ray-tube models that remain the cheapest buys, have included digital tuners that will keep them working past the 2009 analog shutoff.

Many of these TVs are "standard definition" sets -- with the same 480 lines of resolution as analog -- which won't win bragging rights like an HDTV. But on smaller screens, you won't see high-def's extra detail from your couch, anyway.

Why even care about over-the-air reception if, like most, you get your TV programming via cable, satellite or another paid service? Aside from its utility as a backup in case a cable outage or "rain fade" blanks out your regular signal, digital TV makes over-the-air broadcasting relevant again.

Not only do you get better quality, you get better selection, courtesy of the extra, digital-only channels many stations transmit. For example, PBS affiliate WETA offers bonus channels that focus on how-to, children's and international programs, while NBC affiliate WRC provides weather updates on a second channel.

All you need is a digital set with a tuner, an antenna and mediocre analog reception. As long as the digital broadcast comes in clearly, you'll have a perfect picture for free.

Think of digital TV as the new basic cable.

Considering how long most TVs stay in service, it makes no sense to opt for an analog TV, which is still easy to find in stores, to save $100 or so. (You can buy an external tuner for an analog set, but these add-ons remain scarce and expensive.) Instead, you should look for a set with an "ATSC" digital tuner, named after the Advanced Television Systems Committee that devised the digital standard.

Here, however, the industry has failed its customers. Ever since Congress voted in late 2005 to set that 2009 deadline as a way of freeing the old airwaves for other uses -- the vacated analog airwaves can then be auctioned off for other uses, such as broadband Internet -- sets with analog tuners should have come with warning labels advertising their planned obsolescence, while digital-compatible sets should have been labeled just as obviously. Neither thing has happened.

Most sets smaller than 26 inches still lack the digital tuner, as do nearly all video-recording devices and even such bleeding-edge gadgets as the Slingbox video-relay device.

That's changing, thanks to a March 1 deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission that requires most such devices to include digital tuners, but it's ridiculous that we've had to turn digital TV into a command economy to get this far.

These and other delays could mean that, even after years of waiting, you must put off your next TV purchase even longer.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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