Spoutin' Off: Analog TVs likely to work for years

By Michael Rau

October 31 2005

Start the countdown clock. You only have about 31/2 years to get ready for digital television.

OK - I'm jumping the gun a bit here, but TV is something that impacts almost all Americans and the transition to DTV is an incredibly complex issue, even for those in associated industries, it seems like a good time to start thinking about the changes to come.

The Senate has proposed a firm deadline for when over-the-air broadcasters must turn off their analog signals. It's April 7, 2009 (the House proposed a date of 2008, but seems likely to accept the Senate's proposal). On that date, will you need a digital-capable TV to receive your favorite shows?

No - not really.

First, just to be clear, we're not going to get into the topic of high-definition here, or any other benefit achieved by fully embracing the digital TV experience. These technical enhancements are only peripherally relevant in this context and thus, a topic better saved for another day. The transition to digital broadcasting will happen without regard to the resolution standards or multicasting practices deployed by individual broadcasters.

If you're receiving digital service on any TV that's not equipped with a digital tuner (and a decoder card) from a cable company or digital satellite provider, you already know that you don't need a digital-enabled TV to receive digital programming. All you need is a digital-to-analog tuner/converter box hooked up to your set.

If your desire is to receive digital over-the-air broadcasts, you can buy a separate digital receiver/tuner right now for around $200 (albeit, a unit designed for a slightly different purpose), hook it up to your analog TV and watch the local stations' digital broadcasts.

This won't help if you want to receive programming from a digital cable or satellite provider. Their signals are scrambled and require a decoder card to interpret the program. Whether your receiver is a separate component or built into your TV, it must be equipped with the appropriate interface slot to accept the decoder card supplied by your provider.

All of our full-power local stations, except WSKY, are now broadcasting a digital signal (WSKY owner/GM Glenn Holterhaus tells me that he's working toward the goal of having his be the first local station to go all-digital). But most of the programming is still sent in standard definition and thus offers no visual advantage over their analog broadcasts. Unless you want to watch an HD version of a show (if it's even available), your analog TV may serve you for years to come.

Right now, not all of the local stations' digital signals are available on cable. But Matt Farve, a VP for Charter Communications in Va. and N.C., describes negotiations between cable providers and local affiliates here and in other markets as ongoing and relatively cordial, and expressed confidence that carriage agreements would be reached in a timely manner.

Regarding new sets, the FCC has mandated that all TVs manufactured after July of 2007 (this may be moved up) with screens larger than 13 inches will have to come equipped with a digital tuner. Thus, if you buy almost any new TV after this date, you'll be ready for the transition.

Even if you don't buy a digital-enabled TV by 2009, you'll still have a few things going for you. For example, due to large production commitments from LG and Thompson, the cost of a next-generation set-top converter box, specifically designed to receive a standard definition over-the-air digital signal for viewing on an analog set, is expected to be as little as $50. The Senate has proposed subsidizing this cost for those in need of help.

Another is that both the cable and satellite industries already utilize set-top digital-to-analog converters, so there's nothing I can foresee to preclude them from offering such equipment indefinitely.

And if that's not easy enough, reps from both Cox and Charter tell me that they're working to provide digital-to-analog conversion services at their source, meaning they could take the digital signals provided by broadcasters, convert them to analog, then pump that signal out to your old set. Thus, if you have cable service, you may actually be able to use your analog set well beyond the digital TV deadline without a converter.

So, the bottom line is this: You don't need to run out and spend a bunch of money on a new digital tuner equipped TV set to get ready. While not capable of taking advantage of all the enhancements to the TV viewing experience provided by digital broadcasting, one way or another, your analog TV should be useful for years to come.

Considering how complex and cathartic this change is for the industries associated with TV broadcasting, it looks to me like all parties involved are working hard to make consumers' transition from analog-to-digital television a surprisingly easy experience.

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

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