What’s All This About Regular TV Going Away?

July 6, 2007

From time to time, someone will tell me that they’re confused/concerned/worried/panicked about the switch to digital TV (often incorrectly referred to as HDTV) coming up in about a year and a half.

If you’re one of these folks…you’re not alone. Many, many people are confused about the coming switchover to digital TV and exactly how it impacts them. Let me see if I can break it down.

First, it’s important to distinguish between digital TV (DTV) and high definition TV (HDTV). DTV simply means that the broadcast is in a digital format, not analog. HDTV specifically means a high-resolution broadcast, generally either 720 lines at 60 frames/sec or 1080 lines at 60 interlaced fields/sec. Don’t worry about frames/fields/etc. for now — for the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the switchover coming in 2009 mandates DTV, but NOT HDTV.

The vast majority of us get our TV from one or more of the following sources:

* Cable
* Satellite
* Over the air (antenna of some type)

Cable: cable isn’t really affected by the switchover. Even if your cable system were to switch to a fully digital system, so long as the cable box still has analog outputs (the RCA-type yellow/white/red plugs, or an S-Video plug, etc.) you can continue to use your same TV.

Satellite: satellite also isn’t affected by the switchover. Satellite is a purely digital system anyway, and so long as your satellite box has analog outputs, you’re fine. I also lump things like Verizon’s FIOS and AT&T’s U-Verse into this category, since they’re partly or wholly digital and use an external box, just as cable and satellite do.

Over the air (OTA): the FCC has mandated that analog OTA broadcasts cease by February 17, 2009. Broadcasters all have to be broadcasting in DTV by then. Most large ones already are, although there are some small, low-power stations that are planning to do a “hot cut” from analog to digital at some point. What this means if you watch OTA TV is that you either (A) need to get a new TV that can tune/receive DTV OTA broadcasts, or (B) you need to get some kind of tuner box that can tune/receive DTV OTA broadcasts and then output an analog signal to your existing TV.

Per FCC regs, any TV sold now that can tune/receive good, old-fashioned analog TV can also tune/receive DTV OTA broadcasts. (If you go looking at TVs, you’ll see some referred to as “monitors” — those cannot “tune” anything at all and are only useful if you have a cable/satellite box or a box for tuning DTV OTA.)

Also per FCC regs, some time next year you’ll see low-cost DTV OTA tuner boxes for sale. Some kind of coupon will be available that will make the box either free or extremely cheap, although this may only be available to those who can demonstrate that they only get TV OTA. They’re still trying to figure out exactly how they’re going to handle this, but the vendors are already lined up to produce the boxes. Again, remember that all of this only matters for OTA, and not cable or satellite.

Finally, there’s no such thing as an “HDTV” antenna. DTV signals are broadcast on VHF and UHF, just like analog TV. The only caveat to this is that most current DTV stations are broadcasting on UHF, even if the analog equivalent is VHF. (For example, in Chicago the local ABC affiliate, WLS, is on analog channel 7 — VHF. The DTV equivalent, 7.1, is really being broadcast on UHF channel 52.) To make matters even more complicated, those frequencies can (and probably will) change at the time of analog shutoff. Why do I mention this? Because if you live somewhere that requires a big roof antenna, you need to make sure it’s the right kind for all the channels you wish to receive, both now and in the future.

The marvelous antennaweb.org site will tell you where things are today and what kind of antenna you might need. For even better advice, you might take a trip to the AVSforum. It can be a scary place, because most of the inhabitants are real enthusiasts, but if you find the antenna thread for your local market, read through it and post a request. I’ve never failed to get terrific help there. OTA reception is definitely more work than cable or satellite, but it’s worth it: cable and satellite’s picture will never be better and can often be a lot worse.

That’s the long and the short of the big switchover which, as you can see, isn’t a very big deal for the vast majority of folks (74% of people get their TV programming from cable or satellite). In my next post, I’ll address HDTV specifically and choosing TVs.


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