Spoutin' Off: Make sure new TV has digital tuner

By Michael Rau

April 21, 2008

Have you bought a digital TV recently? Are you sure?

It turns out that asking that question is timelier than you might think.

All TVs with screens 15 inches or larger manufactured since March of 2007 have been required to have an ATSC, or digital tuner (this as opposed to NTSC, which is the old analog standard).

Nevertheless, and not surprisingly, large quantities of sets manufactured before the deadlines have remained in the supply chain. Whether this is because large quantities were snatched up by retailers prior to the rules taking effect, or simply by coincidence, is irrelevant.

A couple of weeks ago, the FCC levied major fines against most of the so-called "big box" retailers, citing them for among other things, failing to adequately label analog TV sets as being unequipped to handle broadcast signals after the February 2009 DTV transition deadline. The retailers involved included Best Buy, Circuit City, Sears (and by extension, Kmart), Wal-Mart and Target.

In a column I wrote a couple of years ago, I advised caution when buying a new TV for this very reason. At that time, the vast majority of new TVs available — even the super-cool big flat-screen jobs, were not equipped to receive digital broadcasts.

Now, I'd say the inverse is true — that most sets sold are of the digital variety — but that doesn't mean these retailers were going to throw away their surplus supplies of analog sets. And no one's asking them to ...

Look, this transition is proving to be anxiety-laden enough without all of these major retailers contributing to the problem by essentially bilking their customers who are purchasing new TVs.

The fact is that the older analog sets will still work after the deadline with one of the $50 set-top converter boxes that are now readily available. It wouldn't have been such a big deal for these retailers to discount the older sets and bundle them with a converter box. If the customer has one of the government's $40 rebate coupons, maybe they throw it in for free.

Now, instead of offering praise to these retailers for helping American consumers through this major transition (let's face it — TV is as ubiquitous in our lives as anything), I have to condemn them for their shady practices and warn you to be very careful when shopping at these stores for a TV (or maybe anything else).

What a drag. And what stupidity. Think of all the goodwill they could have engendered with their customers by helping them become informed digital TV consumers, instead of the distrust they've generated by trying to cheat.

So, if you're shopping for a TV, check out the specifications for the set you like and make sure it has an "ATSC" tuner. If not, it should be priced at least $100 less than a comparable set already so-equipped. Also, be prepared to buy the converter box — if not now, then before February of next year.

Having said that, there are a couple of variables to consider:

Secondary terrestrial providers (cable and fiber companies, satellite providers, etc.) are saying that owners of analog sets will still be able to use them over their systems after the deadline.

Now, none of the companies involved has yet stated exactly how this will manifest, and hopefully we'll all soon start getting some idea of what our particular service will look like next February. But for now, I choose to take that pledge literally. The technology is simple enough and should require minimal capital investment on the part of these companies, so all it can do is generate goodwill.

A couple of questions I might ask them are: Will the channel lineups look the same? Also, will there be any added cost to receiving a signal that works on an analog set? (There shouldn't be — as I said, the technology is simple).

For those of you who don't get your television via a secondary provider, the aforementioned converter box will take care of your needs. So even those of you who are discovering that their sets DON'T have a digital tuner will still not be completely in the doghouse. And with the $40 rebate coupon available to all American households (get it here: www.dtv2009.gov/), the cost will be very minimal.

One more thing. My impression is that the government, the broadcast industry and the secondary providers, as well as your local TV affiliates, are really trying very hard to make this transition as pain-free as possible. After all, it certainly does them no good if Feb. 17, 2009 rolls around and you can't watch their programming, right?

All of these entities have posted information, some of it quite extensive and detailed, about how the transition will work and what you need to do to be ready.

There are more things about digital television and the transition that I want to share with you, but they'll have to wait until my next opportunity.

Until then, be careful about what you're buying, and don't let the bad guys fool you into choosing something other than what you want.

Caveat Emptor!

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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