With greater frequency and an increasing level of tension in their voices, people are asking, “What the hell’s up with this digital TV signal thingamabob? I already bought an HDTV and a Blu-Ray DVD player. Do I have to go out and get some new digital antenna doohickey now? I just don’t understand!”
First of all, calm down, breathe normally and step away from the Circuit City.
Last month, amid reports of massive consumer confusion, government and television industry officials kicked off a series of campaigns to prepare people for the federally mandated transition from analog broadcast TV to digital. (Not to worry, similar campaigns are ready and waiting to “prepare” us for the coming alien invasion of Lord Xenu.) Perhaps you’ve seen the public service announcement (still being broadcast in crappy analog, mind you).
Let’s just start with the basics. What in the hell is all this analog/digital crap about anyway? In an effort to sell more HDTVs, and probably hand over more airwaves to Halliburton or GE or somebody, the government decided all TV stations should switch over to more focused DTV signals. This “changeover date” has been pushed back several times, mostly because piddly local stations don’t want to spend the scratch to make the conversion. But the jig is up. On Feb. 17, 2009, about 2,000 stations will have to shut off their old analog signals and flip the switch on digital.
Now, this only applies to free, over-the-air broadcasters. Locally, that means KASA-2, KOB-4, KNME-5, KOAT-7, KRQE-13, KWBQ-19, KASY-50, and a bunch of religious and Mexican-language stations lurking around the UHF dial. In other words: If you have cable or a satellite dish, you can stop reading right now. You’re done. This has nothing to do with you. Go back to watching “The L Word.”
If, however, you own an older analog TV (as opposed to a newer digital television, which already has a built-in DTV receiver) and you’re relying on a set of rabbit ears to bring entertainment into your living room, you’re going to need some help. Only about 14 million households receive free, over-the-air signals these days. (That’s about the same number who watch “Celebrity Apprentice.”) To help these poor wretches, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration will mail out coupons that can be used to buy digital converter boxes (replacing your old antennae) at retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and RadioShack. Each household can get up to two vouchers, each worth $40. They can only be used for basic, government-approved converters that typically cost between $40 and $70. To obtain your own magic coupons, log on to www.dtv.gov or call (888) 388-2009.
Without these converters, you’ll be stuck watching a bunch of static come 2009. With them ... you might still be watching static. Turns out digital signals can contain more information than analog signals, but they don’t travel as far. (It’s a little like the difference between AM and FM radio.) Depending on where you are in relation to the broadcast tower, low-power TV stations (KCHF-11, I’m looking at you) may not show up on your TV even with the new DTV converter. Sorry. And--not to put too fine a point on it--even after you’ve bought the converter box, the best you’re gonna get is more episodes of “The Biggest Loser Couples.” Get cable already!