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Preparing for the switch to all-digital TV

By Rob Owen
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In less than six months, TV goes all-digital. Are you ready?
A Nielsen Media national study released last month found fewer than 10 percent of households are unprepared for the switch to digital. But a survey by Retirement Living TV of people ages 55 and up found that 23 percent of seniors surveyed nationwide are unaware of the digital transition.
Here’s what you need to know to be prepared:
All you need is cable/satellite.
If you already have a cable or satellite or Verizon FiOS TV connection to your TV, you will continue to get all your local channels just as you do now. Cable companies are required to convert the digital signal to analog for at least three more years. The Federal Communications Commission will decide in 2011 whether to extend that requirement beyond Feb. 17, 2012.
If you don’t have a digital TV or a TV with a digital tuner and you pick up your local broadcast channel signals over the air using just an antenna, you’ll need to buy a digital-to-analog over-the-air converter box. The government is offering every U.S. household up to two coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of converters. Most converters cost between $50 and $65. To obtain the coupons ó which expire 90 days from the date of mailing ó visit dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009 (voice) or 1-877-530-2634 (TTY).
Before you request that coupon, make sure your TV contains only an analog tuner and not a digital tuner. Consult your owner’s manual. Since March 2007, all television reception devices ó TVs, VCRs ó imported into the United States have had to include a digital tuner. (Some analog TVs may have been sold by stores since then, but they were required to be prominently marked as such.)
If you intend to get over-the-air TV reception, your old antenna ó whether rabbit ears or on the rooftop ó will continue to pull in signals. The quality of the reception may be different in the digital spectrum than in the analog spectrum.
Depending on the TV market, some DTV signals will be UHF and will require a UHF antenna, the bow tie or loop that attaches to the traditional VHF rabbit ears.
In the past we’ve heard that with digital TV, you’ll either get a crystal-clear signal or nothing, but viewers’ real-world experiences may differ.
“What we’ll find is cases where someone used to get a poor or barely acceptable signal that they now get a perfect picture and, likewise, people who got a poor picture before will get nothing (in digital),” said Dave Kasperek, director of engineering at WTAE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh.
Another issue: In some places, signal strength will vary due to airplane traffic, the movement of trees in the wind and the amount of foliage on trees, depending on the season.
“It could be in a few situations that for a few moments the picture is perfect and then disappears and then comes back perfect,” Kasperek said. “We can’t simplify it down to the level we’d all like it to be simplified to.”
Kasperek said for viewers in a gray area who don’t get any or intermittent reception, they’ll have to experiment with outdoor antennas.
“The whole system is predicated on having a large outdoor antenna,” he said, even though in some locations digital reception will be possible with an indoor rabbit-ear antenna.
The digital switch that’s been instigated by the government refers to moving broadcasters’ over-the-air signal from the analog spectrum to the digital spectrum.
In an unrelated move, Comcast has been moving channels to digital tiers, and that’s confusing some TV viewers.
The Comcast switch involves moving channels between tiers on the cable system, not over the air. The Comcast moves have nothing to do with the government mandate. The government did not tell Comcast to move these channels; it was the company’s choice.
Another distinction worth making: A digital cable set-top box is different from a digital-to-analog over-the-air converter box. If you have cable/satellite hooked up to your TV, you don’t need a digital-to-analog converter box or the coupons to buy one.
If you do buy an HD set …
ó Be warned that if your HDTV is hooked up to a cable box via an HDMI cable ó the preferred choice for the best picture and sound quality ó you can’t get closed captions the way you have in the past.
Captions have to be turned on through the cable box, which isn’t easy for Comcast customers who have a Motorola cable box. To turn on closed captions through a Motorola box:
ó Your TV should be on but you must turn the cable box off.
ó Then press the MENU button on the remote. This brings up a somewhat crude menu.
ó Press the down arrow to get to the Closed Captioning line. Press the right arrow button to switch the closed captioning from disabled to enabled.
ó Other options appear when you enable the CC, but you probably don’t need to worry about those. Press MENU again. Turn the cable box back on and you should have captions.
If your HDTV gets its signal over the air and is not attached to cable/satellite, then you’ll get closed captions the normal way, through closed caption settings on the TV.
Q: What happens to low-power stations?
A: A date for low-power stations to go digital has not been set. Cable companies that currently carry these channels are expected to continue to do so. An analog TV will continue to pick them up ó and not much else ó after Feb. 17, 2009.
If you plan to use an over-the-air digital converter and you want to still get low-power station signals, it’s easiest to accomplish that by buying a digital-to-analog converter that includes the “analog pass-through” feature, which will allow for the reception of both digital and the remaining analog signals.
Q: Will my VCR still work?
A: That depends. Most older VCRs have an NTSC tuner, which works only on the analog spectrum. It won’t be able to record over-the-air signals after Feb. 17. But if your TV and VCR are hooked up to cable or an over-the-air converter box, the VCR should still record programs. But, depending on variables in your particular setup, it may only record the channel you’re watching so you won’t be able to watch one channel and record a program on another channel.
Q: What happens to my radio with a TV band?
A: A radio that currently pulls in a TV station’s analog signal will not be able to receive that signal after the transition to digital is complete.
Q: What about my little TV in the kitchen/on my boat/at our cottage?
A: It depends: If the TV can be connected to a digital-to-analog converter, it can still be used. But some super-small TVs can’t be connected and will become obsolete.
With the coming digital-TV era, broadcasters will have the ability to transmit multiple channels over the air. Already some stations have weather digital sub-channels. Others have picked up the RTN digital subchannel, which shows classic TV shows. Many of these digital subchannels are also available on local cable systems.
But where can you find listings for these channels? There’s simply not enough space in printed TV listings to add them there. But they can be found online at station sites and in online listings associated with many newspapers.
Learn more on the Web at http://www.dtv.gov.
(E-mail Rob Owen at rowen(at)post-gazette.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
AP-NY-08-15-08 1557EDT

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