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TV's Digital Transition Doesn't Have to Cause Headaches

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, January 22, 2009

The transition from analog to digital television may have inflicted more confusion on the American public than any other electronic upgrade in history. No other technological switch -- not going from Windows XP to Vista, not migrating from CDs to MP3s, not trading in maps for GPS guidance -- seems to have puzzled, frightened and in some cases angered so many people.

That's a shame, because most people need not touch a thing on their TVs when almost all analog broadcasts vanish from the airwaves Feb. 17. (Even this late in the game, that deadline could be pushed back.)

Among the TV-related pursuits that won't be affected one whit by the digital transition: watching broadcasts on cable, fiber-optic or satellite; watching DVD and VHS movies; and playing video games.

Only the small minority of Americans who rely on the public airwaves for TV need worry about getting ready for the digital transition and its three direct benefits: better picture and sound quality; such extra digital channels as the cultural and educational programs many public broadcasters air; and, with a compatible set, high-definition video and sound, all for free.

(The digital switch will also bring indirect benefits: a new set of wireless data services using some of the powerful spectrum once occupied by analog television.)

Should you be among those viewers affected by the switch, you have two ways to keep watching TV: a new set with a digital tuner, or a digital converter box for your old set. (Not sure you own a digital set? You probably don't, but run its channel-search function to be sure.) A new flat-panel TV can let you watch high-def broadcasts for free and liberate a few cubic feet of space, but most converter boxes cost only $50 or $60.

Until recently, the government handed out $40 coupons to subsidize that cost, via http://www.dtv2009.gov or 888-388-2009. But too many people have claimed coupons without cashing them in. Until those unused coupons expire -- 90 days after their issue -- the government cannot provide more without revising the law behind the coupon program.

All converters offer the same basic features and limits. They work with any analog TV, although ancient sets that lack a threaded coaxial-cable post on the back will need a "twin lead" adapter. But they require reading the manual, lest you miss a connection between antenna, converter and TV. And they won't turn your old set into a high-definition screen.

Nor will they do anything for cable TV. The movement of some cable channels from analog to digital service has nothing to do with over-the-air broadcasts, regardless of what your cable operator might say.

The trick with any converter box or digital TV is ensuring that it pulls in your favorite stations. But where a weak analog signal can be tolerable, bad digital reception offends the senses. Instead of a blizzard of snow that you can try to see past, the picture will fracture into blocks of color and the sound will drop out every few seconds.

First, try your existing antenna. You may find, as I have in tests of digital TVs and converters in my home, that you don't need anything else. But if you cannot lock in your usual channels, try upgrading your antenna.

After decades of not having to put any real effort into antenna design, manufacturers have gone back to work, shipping a variety of indoor and outdoor models that should yield notably better performance. See http://www.antennaweb.org for conservative estimates of what kind of antenna you may need.

Note that digital broadcasts may grow stronger after the end of analog. Some stations will shift their digital channels to wavelengths formerly occupied by analog signals, and others will make minor tweaks to their transmissions.

Some analog-TV applications, however, will go the way of the dodo, at least temporarily. One is listening to the audio of TV broadcasts on radios with TV tuners; none exist yet with digital tuners. Another is watching TV in a moving vehicle, because the standards for mobile-DTV tuners are still being worked out -- although you can buy portable digital TVs.

It's possible but difficult to hook a VCR to a converter box to record digital channels. You'll do far better to swap the VCR for a DVD recorder with a digital tuner (many of which include built-in VCRs).

This adds up to a lot of work for people who may not have had to look at the back of their TVs for decades. Is it all worth it?

I believe so. The digital transition will move millions of people from decent analog reception to terrific, high-definition reception. Many will be able to stop paying for TV service; when digital TV becomes the new basic cable, cable and satellite services should, in turn, feel motivated to provide a better deal for their subscribers.

Unfortunately, other viewers will see their TV performance degrade unless they spend extra on a new antenna, or even if they do. There's no such thing as a right to watch TV, but this still represents a high price for progress.

If it's any consolation, after all the angst the digital transition has inflicted on home viewers and policy makers alike, it will be a long time before anybody suggests another mandatory upgrade over the public airwaves.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at robp@washpost.com. Read more at http://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/

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