Mixed signals on digital TV conversion

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2008 - 5:00 PM

Next year's switchover from analog broadcasts is causing readers some confusion. Allow us to demystify the issue.

The federally mandated switch from analog to digital TV broadcasts is almost a year away -- Feb. 17 -- but people still have loads of questions about it, judging from the deluge of reader inquiries I received after a recent article (www.startribune.com/a4090). Here are some answers.

Why are you writing about this now?

First some background: More than 20 percent of all TV sets in the Minneapolis-St. Paul viewing area, which contains 51 Minnesota counties and nine Wisconsin counties, are affected by the transition, according to the Nielsen Co. That's more than any U.S. metro area but Portland, Ore.

The people affected are those with older sets that have analog tuners and receive TV signals over the air using an external antenna. People with newer TVs that have digital (ATSC) tuners are not affected, nor are those who receive programming from a cable or satellite provider.

With so many Minnesotans affected by the transition, some will need to start deciding how they will proceed. There are three options: 1. Buy a new TV; 2. Subscribe to a cable or satellite service; or 3. Buy a converter box that connects between your existing TV and antenna.

Why not just buy a new TV as the date gets closer?

One indignant reader insisted that writing about the digital TV transition so far in advance was a waste of time. "Worst case, the change happens and you go buy a new TV over the next few days," he said.

That ignores the many consumers who cannot afford to buy a new TV or subscribe to cable or satellite. Through a government program (www.dtv2009.gov or 1-888-388-2009), anyone can receive a voucher (limit two per household) good for $40 off the price of a converter box; they generally sell for $50 to $70.

But requesting and receiving those vouchers, which expire 90 days after issue, takes time. And if everyone waits until the last minute, demand will exceed supply or slow the process. Besides, digital TV broadcasts are available now. Why wait to switch over?

What channels will I get from digital TV broadcasts?

You'll get all of the local channels you've always received -- Channels 2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 17, 23, 29, 41, 45 -- plus several more. Digital TV allows stations to broadcast multiple signals at once. So besides its normal programming, for example, Twin Cities Public Television offers high-def-only PBS shows on Channel 2.2 and four additional feeds on the Channel 17 band -- public-affairs programming (17.2), PBS shows for kids (17.3), PBS how-to programs (17.4) and weather (17.5). KARE-11 adds a detailed weather channel on Channel 11.2, and KSTP shows news rebroadcasts on Channel 5.2.

Will I need a new antenna?

You might. Unfortunately, you won't know until you switch to digital TV. Generally, though, your reception probably won't change; many people say it gets better. One thing to note about digital TV is that, unlike analog reception, you either get a picture or nothing; there is no ghosting or snow. In general, the best rule is simply to point your antenna in the direction of the huge TV-broadcast towers in Shoreview. To see which antenna is best for your location, enter your address at Antenna Web (www.antennaweb.org).

What if my TV has a built-in antenna?

One man called to tell me that his decades-old TVs had built-in rabbit-ear antennas with nothing on the back of the sets but power cords. To paraphrase my response: You, sir, are out of luck. The converter box has to connect to the TV somehow, either through a coaxial antenna input or audio-video inputs. Older TVs that have only screws to connect an external antenna will work with an inexpensive adapter available at stores such as Radio Shack. But your only option for a TV with no means to attach a converter box is to upgrade to a new TV.

How about radio?

Analog radio broadcasts are not affected by the switchover, just TV.

What converter boxes are available?

There are many models from various manufacturers. Some have remote controls and other features, but they all serve the same basic function: They convert the digital TV signal so your analog TV can recognize it. Shop around if you want to compare features, which include extra inputs and VCR integration. (I haven't found a good comparison of available models.) One model to watch for is EchoStar's T-40 converter box, coming in June for $40, which essentially renders it free after using the $40 government voucher.

Will the converter box work with my VCR?

Yes, just connect the converter box to your VCR instead of the TV. Instructions should come with the box, or they can be found online using the resources at the end of this article.

Why don't some stores know about this?

Several readers have said they went to stores to buy a converter box only to be shown the wrong thing, given incorrect information or offered bad service. This one is simple: If you don't find knowledgeable, helpful salespeople, go to a different store. Or study up beforehand, using the following resources, so you don't have to ask.

Where can I go for questions about the digital TV transition?

The federal government has set up a toll-free number (1-888-388-2009) and a website (www.dtv2009.gov) to provide answers. On the latter, click on the "FAQ" link at the bottom of the home page. Those contacts will also fulfill requests for the $40 converter-box vouchers. Here are additional resources:

• DTV Answers (www.dtvanswers.com), which was set up by the National Association of Broadcasters.

• DTV (www.dtv.gov), the FCC's website.

• Digital Tips (www.digital-tips.org), a site from the Consumer Electronics Association that includes installation guides for converter boxes.

• Richfield-based Best Buy has set up a toll-free number (1-877-229-3889).

• Twin Cities Public Television (www.tpt.org/dtv) and KARE-11 (www.kare11. com/dtv) offer good resources and local information on their websites.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.

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