Antenna TV viewers will need an upgrade within the next year
Faithful viewers hop out of bed a year from now, turn on their TV sets and cannot get any of their local TV stations.
The scenario could play out Feb. 17, 2009 for people who don't have cable TV or subscribe to a satellite provider and instead rely on getting their TV over the air with an antenna. The date marks the dawn of a new digital age for TV. The analog signal, around since the very beginning of TV, will cease – replaced by an all-digital signal that broadcasters are already using.
Of course, there is a qualifier to all of this: People with televisions without a built-in digital tuner – most TVs made before March 1, 2006 – can get a coupon worth $40 from the federal government for a converter box. The boxes, expected to sell for $40 to $70, receive the digital signal and convert it to analog, allowing those with older TVs to continue to watch over-the-air broadcasts.
Most televisions made in the last two years include digital tuners. Millions of people have either cable TV or satellite programming – so just how many people will the switch-over affect? The figures vary considerably, with estimates as low as 13 percent and as high as 26 percent of all households. Either way, it figures to be a considerable number. So expect a barrage of publicity campaigns over the next year as broadcasters try to educate viewers.
"It's a big milestone for both commercial and public broadcasters," said Carl Caldwell, the station manager for the University of Illinois-owned WILL-TV. "Our primary concern are those people who get their signal off the air, not from cable and not from satellite. If they don't take the necessary steps, those people will wake up Feb. 17 next year and find their TVs won't have a picture."
According to Caldwell, an estimated 24 to 25 percent of the viewers in the WILL-TV broadcast area receive their shows over the air, via antenna.
For those viewers nationwide, the sign-up for the $40 converter box coupons started Jan. 1 by going to www.dtv2009.gov or calling 1-888-DTV-2009. There is a limit of two coupons per household. The analog spectrum being given up by TV broadcasters is being auctioned off for other uses. A portion of the money generated by the auction is paying for the coupon program.
The set-top converter boxes are hooked to the TV via antenna – you do not need a special antenna to receive digital broadcast signals – and convert the digital signal to analog. For those converter boxes that cost more than $40, consumers will have to pay the difference. And the coupons are good only for the converter boxes – they cannot be used to buy a new TV, DVD player or other video equipment.
"The coupons are only good for 90 days and the government will stop issuing them in March 2009. One reason to apply early is so you're not caught in the next-January-doh! I have-to-do-something mode," said Steve Suderman, president of Good Vibes in Champaign.
Also, the federal government only has enough money for 33.5 million coupons, and demand has been brisk, according to Suderman and others. The government lists about 35 different converter boxes on its Web site. Magnavox, Philco, RCA, GE, Zenith and EchoStar (Dish Network) are the best-known brands.
"I'm not going to carry a bunch of these things," Suderman says. "You don't make much money off of them and it's a short-term product. What's the life span going to be?"
Because most recently made TVs and DVD player/recorders have a digital tuner, all you may need – if you don't have cable or satellite – is an antenna. Built-in digital tuners go by the initials ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee), while analog tuners go by NTSC (National Television System Committee).
The owner's manual or set-up menu on your TV or DVD player/recorder should tell you whether it has a built-in digital tuner.
"What a lot of people don't know yet is how terrific a digital TV is with just an antenna," Suderman said.
And with a TV using either the converter box or the built-in digital tuner, you will find (if you haven't already) that you will get a lot more channels than before.
For example, WILL-TV, instead of its one analog channel, broadcasts three digital channels (WILL-HD, all high-definition programming; WILL-DT, a simulcast of the analog channel offerings; and WILL-DT3, a hybrid content offering).
The big question for the changeover is whether most people with older TVs, and not on cable or satellite, will get the converter boxes or just opt for a new TV with built-in digital tuner.
With a converter box, you will not be getting the full benefit of the digital signal, although the picture should be clear and without static as long as the signal is good.
"With a converter box, you're taking the signal and dumbing it down for a TV that has one-fourth the definition of a new HDTV," said Geoff Poor, owner of Glenn Poor's Audio-Video in Champaign.
"One thing that will play into this is how inexpensive HDTVs are," Poor said. "When I was in college in 1970 I bought a 17-inch Sony Trinitron for $799. When I think about that now, it's unbelievable.
"You can get a cheap 42-inch HDTV for not much more than that."
The converter boxes, however, will come in handy for people with low or fixed incomes and those who have second TVs in garages, workshops and other areas not hooked to cable or satellite.
And some people who opt to buy a new TV may want to keep their current analog set as a second TV – and that's a much better alternative than putting it outside with the garbage (please see sidebar above).
The switch-over to the all-digital broadcasts actually have little impact on TV stations – most have been broadcasting their digital signals for well over a year. The dropping of the analog signal will mean some savings on power bills but isn't expected to be substantial.
Stations may make a few minor changes. For instance, WILL-TV will tweak its multicast lineup, and WCFN-TV will go from a standard-definition signal to high-definition signal.
For the consumer, there is the emotional impact of no longer having familiar TV channels available – Channels 3, 12, 15, 17, 23 and 27.
The switch-over is more about repositioning, which will cause some confusion no matter how well TV stations publicize the event.
"At this point, everything will stay the way it is and we'll just move forward," said Russ Hamilton, vice president and general manager of WCIA-TV and WCFN-TV.
While the switch-over doesn't mean much difference in the stations' daily operations, "it will confuse the consumer, in my opinion, especially older folks," Hamilton said. "These are people who've gotten WCIA off the air the same way for 50 years.
"It is what it is, and hopefully we can do enough to prepare people over the next year so that all of their questions will be answered."