Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Confused about digital TV switchover? Here's the plan

Feb. 8, 2009

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2008, The Post-Standard

   On June 12, you might lose your TV channels. Then again, you might not.
   The confusion over what's really going to occur can be blamed on the good intentions of the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC tried to give some folks a break when the time came for mandatory switchover to digital TV. That gesture ended up confusing everybody.
   Further confusion came from Congress, which sent misleading signals on whether the digital switchover should be delayed. Late last month, the Senate unanimously voted to delay the switchover until June 12, but the House initially balked. The House then reconsidered and approved the delay.
   If you're assuming that the new date of June 12 means you're not going to see digital signals until then, think again. Some TV stations are already sending out digital signals, and more are likely to change on their own before the June date.
   Let's see what the switchover is all about.
   On June 12, all TV stations will stop sending out old-fashioned analog TV broadcasts. This is ONLY important if you use an antenna or if your stations come in through a community antenna like the kind that serves old apartment houses. Your antenna won't pick up the old channels because there won't be any more broadcasts in analog.
   If you use cable TV, forget what I just told you. Everything will stay the way it is.
   Even this simple explanation is confusing. So that brings us back to the FCC. Cable television has always been a step or two outside the jurisdiction of federal watchdogs -- cable TV is a closed system, and therefore not regulated as much as broadcast TV is -- so the FCC kept its mitts off cable in its orders on the digital switchover. All it actually did was to tell cable operators that if they couldn't pick and choose which analog cable feeds to keep.
   The FCC says cable operators have to provide all local stations in analog if they provide any of them in analog.
   This is truly dumb. If all the analog broadcast signals disappear, who cares if cable services are still allowed to send out analog signals? Doesn't the FCC know that it just outlawed analog stations?
   So as to whether you're going to keep getting your favorite analog cable stations on your old TV after June 12, you'll just have to wait and see. Cable operators are not going to convert digital stations back to analog, but they could choose to send out analog "community channels" if they want to.
   What about the folks who have newer TVs? If you have cable TV and your television is already able to pick up digital broadcasts or digital stations through cable, you don't have to worry about any part of this.
   (How do you know your TV can pick up digital channels? Look for "ATSC" -- that's what digital TV tuners use -- in the owners manual, or, better yet, see if you can get any digital stations when you tell the set to scan for channels. A digital set will pick up digital stations, whether it's on an antenna or a cable service.)
   Unfortunately, if you have an analog TV and get your broadcasts from an antenna, you'll have to do one of two things -- buy a new TV or buy a converter. Any new TV you buy will be able to pick up digital channels -- that's required by law -- but the cheapest way to deal with the changeover is to buy a converter box. Stores that sell TVs have them. They usually cost about $50. Just remember that a digital converter box is just a way to degrade the signal to match your old TV; it won't improve the picture on your old set.
   If you're a member of the Procrastinators Club, you might remember that you were supposed to apply for a government coupon for $40 off any new converter box. You can still order the coupon, although it will take weeks to arrive. Go to www.dtv2009.gov.