A Clearer Picture on TV's Transition

(By Matt Rourke -- Associated Press)
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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Q. How can I keep watching TV?

A. If you have a digital TV, you should not have to do anything to keep getting a TV signal. If you have an older, analog TV and do not subscribe to satellite or cable service, you will need to buy a converter box to hook up to your set.

How can I tell if I have a digital TV?

Almost all TVs manufactured after March 1, 2007, have been required to come with a digital tuner. Many TVs made in the past three years or so come with a digital tuner. If your TV was built before 1998, though, it is probably analog and will not receive digital signals.

Do I need a converter box if I have basic cable service?

Basic cable service is transmitted in analog form. If you don't have a set-top box, you probably have analog cable. You should ask your cable company for specifics about the transition. The Federal Communications Commission is requiring basic cable operators to carry many broadcasters' analog signals for three years after the transition.

How does a converter box work?

Converter boxes translate digital signals back to analog, so the broadcast is visible on analog sets. You hook it up to your antenna, TV and a power outlet.

Where can I get one?

Converter boxes can be bought at Best Buy, Circuit City, RadioShack, Wal-Mart and other retailers. You can also order them at Web sites such as http://solidsignal.com or http://digitalstar.com. You can also order them over the phone by calling a number of hotlines, including Best Buy's order center at 877-BBY-DTV9 or RadioShack's at 877-RS-DTV-4U.

What is the coupon program and how do I get one?

Congress set up a $1.5 billion program to provide $40 coupons to consumers to help offset the cost of basic converter boxes, which generally cost $40 to $80. You can request two coupons per household, and you can order them by calling 888-DTV-2009 or online at http://www.dtv2009.gov. Coupons will be available until March 31.

Some converter boxes have high-end features, such as a digital recorder or a DVD player. While basic boxes only transmit signals in standard definition, some more advanced boxes will allow for a high-definition-quality picture. Higher-end boxes generally cost $80 to $120 and are not eligible to be used with a government-sponsored coupon.

What are the differences among converter box models?

They come in all different sizes, but many are smaller than a typical cable set-top box. They come with various remotes, but there's little difference between the picture quality you will receive. Some have more accurate digital tuners and will therefore be able to receive more channels. The government has certified 67 converter boxes so far, and more are expected to be available in the coming months.

How does it affect my VCR?

Using a converter box should not affect the operation of your VCR. But you will not be able to record from one channel while watching another, as you can with some higher-end VCRs. You will still be able to record programs, but only on whatever channel the converter box is tuned into.

How will my reception be affected?

With traditional over-the-air analog signals, you get weaker reception as you move farther from a broadcast tower, causing static or a snowy picture. With digital signals, you either get a picture, or you don't. So if you live far from a broadcast tower and are receiving a marginal picture, you may have trouble getting digital broadcasts without readjusting your antenna or buying a more powerful antenna.

Will I need a new antenna?

You will probably have to adjust or reposition your antenna to receive optimal reception, just as you do with analog signals. In some cases, you may have to replace an indoor antenna with a more powerful rooftop antenna.

How will I receive signals from smaller community broadcasters?

To continue to receive low-power stations like high-school sports and city council meetings, you will need a converter box that allows analog signals to pass through to your TV. There are currently seven models with this "analog pass-through" feature.

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