Will Your TV Go Dark on June 12th?
Conventional over-the-air broadcasting is going away. Here's what you need to know before it's too late.
Digital TV (DTV) is a wonderful thing. Pictures are pristine. Ghosting is gone. Sound is CD-like. The trouble is that some of you won't be able to see a thing after June 12, 2009. D-Day is when America's 60-year-old analog broadcasting system shuts down. Left standing will be DTV broadcasting, a more efficient bit-based system that has been simulcasting along with analog TV since the dawn of the new millennium.
If you purchased a new TV within the last couple of years, there's a very good chance it already has a digital (ATSC) tuner. You may not have noticed it's there because the TV also came with a traditional analog (NTSC) tuner or you're using a cable TV box. After June 12, the TV's internal analog tuner will stop picking up most over-the-air TV channels because every full-power TV station must switch to broadcasting exclusively in digital. So, on newer sets not connected to cable or satellite, turning your TV to digital reception may be simply a matter of using the set-up menu to scan for digital stations. Check beforehand that your roof or indoor antenna is connected to the correct antenna (RF-type) input. You may also have to reposition the antenna for optimum reception or get a better antenna.
Viewers using an antenna with an older TV should pay special attention. If the screen on your TV sports a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio as opposed to the newer widescreen (16:9) shape, your set is unlikely to contain a digital tuner. If you own a direct view TV (that is, a curved glass screen backed by a cathode ray tube), it probably doesn't include a digital tuner. If your TV is more than six or seven years old, it almost certainly doesn't contain a digital tuner. Even TV sets sold early on as "High Definition-ready" require an external box to receive digital channels.
Yet, the majority of viewers won't have to lift a finger before D-Day. And they'll still be able to watch NBC Nightly News and reruns of Desperate Housewives, blissfully ignorant that the greatest switchover since black and white turned color just occurred. Why? Because most Americans get their TV channels by cable or satellite. Cable companies for now will continue to carry the most widely-watched channels the old way in order to accommodate the millions of "cable-ready" TV sets and their analog-only tuners. If you use a cable box, which is an outboard tuner, a larger number of digital channels can be received and output to your conventional TV through such analog connections as composite video, S-Video, component video, and stereo audio. Satellite operators DirecTV and DishNetwork, meanwhile, are entirely digital, and every subscriber uses a receiver that can output digital or analog signals depending on the type of TV connected.
That leaves approximately 15 percent of U.S. households that rely on over-the-air reception. Typically, these viewers are older, poorer or more rural, but the common denominator is that they don't subscribe to a pay TV service. Additionally, some cable or satellite families possess a second or third TV that isn't connected to service and depends on over-the-air reception. Of course, a lot of those secondary sets are hooked up to DVD players, video cassette players, or game consoles and will continue to play. However, any device using an analog-only tuner – including the vast majority of VCR's, older DVD recorders, and older TV tuners for computers – will be unable to receive over-the-air broadcasts after June 12th or record programs.
So, for those viewers facing the extinction of television as they know it, there are several options. The most exciting solution is to get a new TV. All new TV sets or any device that contains a TV tuner sold in the U.S. today must include a digital tuner. Since virtually every TV sold by B&H is an HDTV set, meaning it has sufficient resolution to display high-def programs in high definition (the richest form of digital TV), you're in for a treat. HD can make it seem like you're looking through an open window. Since almost every set incorporates a widescreen display, network dramas like CSI and Grey's Anatomy fill the screen perfectly without letterboxing (black bars at the top and bottom of the screen). Since nearly every widescreen HDTV set offered by B&H uses a flat-panel technology (LCD or plasma), even a screen larger than your old one will likely take up less room and weigh less than your old tube TV. On many models, you can plug your PC in, too. Almost every flat-screen TV comes with a stand that can be removed if you'd prefer to mount the screen on a wall.
On the small size, 26-inch LCD HDTV models start at around $500 and go up to about $700. An example is the Sony KDL-26L5000.
Somewhat larger LCD TV sets are available in 32- and 37-inch screen sizes with prices ranging from about $600 to $800 for the 32's and $750 to $1,000 for the 37's. A 720p set is typically priced lower than a comparably-sized 1080p set. An example of a 32 is the Samsung LN32B550; a 37, the Samsung LN37B550. Both models feature 1080p lines of progressive resolution. (Receiving an analog broadcast, your old TV shows about 330 interlaced lines; displaying a VHS tape, about 240 lines.)
If you can afford larger screen sizes – especially for your main viewing room – go for it. High definition is best appreciated on a big screen. Plasma or LCD TV's are available in 42-, 46-, 50-, 52-, and even larger sizes. In most cases they contain 1,920 pixels across by 1,080 down for a total of about 2 million pixels. This format is referred to as Full HD.
On the other hand, if want to milk more viewing time from your old TV, you could buy a low-cost digital to analog converter box. The box does not turn a conventional TV into an HDTV set, but you should get a picture at least as sharp as what you're used to seeing. The picture will sometimes appear reduced in size since a chunk of the screen will be occupied by letterboxing to accommodate shows meant to be watched on a widescreen set. Still, your TV won't go dark. The box will tune in over-the-air DTV channels and convert the signals to the analog type your old TV is accustomed to receiving. In so doing, the box bypasses the TV's internal tuner. Use the remote that comes with the converter box to change channels.
A new converter offered by B&H is the Coby DTV102 ATSC SD set-top box. It tunes in broadcasts from DTV stations in your area and down-converts them to analog signals your old TV recognizes. On the back of the box is an antenna input and outputs that let you connect the box to your TV though its antenna input; or S-video or composite video and stereo inputs. The DTV102 supports an on-screen program guide and comes with a remote.
As for using an over-the-air antenna with a converter box, you may very well be able to simply plug your old roof or indoor antenna into the antenna input on the converter box. You should keep in mind, though, that most of the digital frequencies are in the UHF band, so a good UHF-type antenna will serve you better than the traditional rabbit ears suited for the VHF band. B&H stocks a variety of antennas. Click here to see them.
Here's something you should do whether you're using a converter box or the digital tuner inside an HDTV set: the day after analog broadcasting is shut down, you should rescan the airwaves for the available DTV stations in your area. That's because some broadcasters will be tweaking their digital frequencies or increasing the transmission power on their digital frequencies once they no longer have to support analog broadcasting.
You may be eligible to receive up to two $40 coupons from the U.S. government to help defray the cost of one or two certified TV converter boxes you buy. The coupon program is run by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
For more information about the coupon program, call 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009). Foreign language operators are available. You can also go online at www.DTV2009.gov. The converter boxes sold by B&H have been certified by the program, but you should obtain the coupon(s) before making your purchase.
You an also use your computer as a TV with the addition of a compatible tuner. A tuner accessory can be in the form of a card you insert in an empty slot or as a peripheral you plug into a USB port. The benefit of watching TV on a computer is that the screen almost certainly has enough resolution to show a high-definition program in high-def, and most tuners include software that records or buffers programs to the hard drive, turning your computer into a digital video recorder. With an antenna (sometimes included), you'll be able to receive free over-air-DTV. If the tuner has Clear QAM support, you may be able to tune in unencrypted channels from cable TV. To see a variety of tuner upgrades available to computer users, click here. Avoid products that contain only an analog tuner. One of the more flexible USB tuners for Windows users is the AVerTV Hybrid Volar MAX. By choosing the H.264 compression option, you can save favorite TV shows at a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels and play them on your iPod.
The clock is ticking. Now is the time to get a new TV, subscribe to cable or satellite service, or hook up a converter box or other video component containing a digital tuner. If you procrastinate after D-Day, every day will be a snow day on your old TV.