Preparing for the Beginning of the End of Analog TV

Analog TV users who don't have cable or satellite service need a converter to watch digital TV. The government offers a coupon worth $40 toward a converter.
Analog TV users who don't have cable or satellite service need a converter to watch digital TV. The government offers a coupon worth $40 toward a converter. (Wal-mart Stores)
By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, February 14, 2008

TV as we've known it has barely a year left to live. On Feb. 17, 2009, the analog broadcasts that have taken the networks into American homes for decades will end, replaced by a stream of digital bits that carry video and audio more efficiently and with higher quality.

For all the people happily basking in the glow of a new flat-panel, high-definition TV, many others are puzzled by the digital-TV transition. This may be one of the most misunderstood upgrade cycles in consumer-electronics history.

It shouldn't be. People coped with earlier analog-to-digital transitions that took us from vinyl records to CDs, paper letters to e-mail and film to digital cameras.

The digital-TV transition is the basically the same thing. You just have to ask the right questions.

What's a digital TV? It's not a high-definition or flat-panel set; high-def is only one flavor of digital TV. What counts is not the set's screen, but what's behind it -- a digital, or ATSC ("Advanced Television Systems Committee"), tuner that can receive the new signals.

Do I have one? If you have to ask, you probably don't. Even big-screen sets built before 2006 usually lack a digital tuner. Sets smaller than 26 inches, VCRs, DVD recorders and digital video recorders are probably analog, too, unless they were made after last March, when a Federal Communications Commission mandate kicked in.

The easiest way to tell is to see whether the set's remote control lets you tune in channels with decimal points: 4.1 instead of just 4, for example. The TV's setup mode should also let you search for digital and analog channels.

Does it matter if I don't have a digital TV? That depends on how the TV signal reaches your set.

If you have a cable or satellite box plugged into an analog TV, or if you only use the set to watch DVDs or play video games, you don't need to do anything.

If, however, you use a "cable ready" analog set to watch cable without a separate box, you may have to surrender that simplicity to watch more than your ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC or PBS affiliates. While cable systems that haven't already gone all-digital must provide an analog feed of local commercial and public stations through February 2012, they can move other channels to digital services that would require a cable box.

If you get TV using an indoor, attic-mounted or rooftop antenna, you have to get a new tuner -- but not a new TV, unless you also want to watch high-definition broadcasts. To keep using your older set, you need a digital converter box, which should be widely available by early March for about $50.

To help people who rely on analog broadcasts -- 14 percent of U.S. households, according to the FCC -- the government is giving away $40 coupons for the purchase of a converter. You can request two coupons online ( or by calling 888-388-2009. Coupons expire 90 days after being mailed; the first should go out late this month.

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