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Dueling Digital-TV Headlines

Two press releases appeared in my inbox within an hour of each other. The National Association of Broadcasters fired first:

Consumer Awareness of DTV transition Grows Substantially

Washington, D.C.--Consumer awareness of the federally-mandated transition to digital television (DTV) has grown substantially over the past year, reaching 79 percent according to a survey commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

The survey, which was conducted in January 2008, includes a national sample of television households including those that rely solely on over-the-air television signals. Seventy-nine percent of respondents reported that they have "seen, read or heard something about the February 17, 2009 transition to digital television."

Awareness was even greater among exclusively over-the-air households, where 83 percent of respondents reported they are aware of the transition. Overall, consumer awareness has more than doubled since January 2007 when an NAB survey asking the same question found that only 38 percent of consumers were aware of the transition.

The NAB's release did not, however, detail how deep that awareness went. Which brings us to the next item in my inbox, a note from Consumers Union:

Consumer Reports Survey: Significant Confusion About Digital Television Conversion

Seventy Four Percent of Consumers Aware of the Digital Transition have Major Misconceptions, Consumer Reports Survey Finds

WASHINGTON, D.C. - There is significant confusion among consumers about the looming transition to digital television (DTV), according to a new survey from Consumer Reports National Research Center. 74 percent of respondents that indicated they were aware of the transition have major misconceptions about its impact.

The poll also found that over one-third (36%) of Americans living in households with TVs are entirely unaware of the transition to digital television in Feb 2009.

The CU press release offered more bad news about those viewers who have gotten the memo about the DTV switch:

Among those consumers who are aware of the transition, over half (58%) believe all TVs will need a digital converter box to function, 48 percent believe that only digital televisions will work after 2009 and nearly one quarter (24%) believe they will need to throw away all of their analog television sets; none of which is true.

For what it's worth, the questions I get in my own e-mail, Web chats and comments here suggest that the Consumers Union release gets closer to the truth. I suspect that I will need to write (yet another) primer about the digital transition sometime soon. What questions would you like that story to answer?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 30, 2008; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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Comments

I recommend covering a couple issues:
1. In the past month converter boxes have become available at Best Buy and Walmart: they REALLY exist now.
2. People can request coupons at www.dtv2009.gov BUT they can only be used in stores (not online) and are only good for 90 days (and will not be replaced or renewed).
3. Buying NOW gives access to OTA digital which is already operating and is great.
3. Discuss possibility that there will emerge new converter boxes that will have more features.

Posted by: josey23 | January 30, 2008 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Here's one, will Comcast try to use this deadline as an excuse to force us analog cable subscribers to get digital cable?

Posted by: dgc | January 30, 2008 2:22 PM | Report abuse

My Dad lives in an area (Cedar City Utah) served by "translator" stations. They won't be going digital, AFAIK. So what's he supposed to do? He doesn't have, or want, cable... Most of Utah is in his situation.

Posted by: wiredog | January 30, 2008 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I have two dinosaurs that will need boxes. I figure I will wait a bit to get them b/c I'm not sure if there are different models or one basic that will do the job. Funny, one of the tv sets is a color 13" that cost about 60 bucks years ago on a Black Friday deal at Sears.

Posted by: Tina | January 30, 2008 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Since I live in the populated East Coast, and have cable, Cox says the transition won't be a concern to cable subscribers, according to their advertising. If I live in a place without cable, I would want to know which TVs have the best or standard tuners. Is there any difference between the two? I understand that some stations are broadcasting digitally right now. So even without cable I could receive the broadcasts from the stations that are in my proximity? How's the picture look over the air? I think readers, shoppers and the like should be aware that retailers are still "shedding" soon-to-be outdated models that might not be really what a consumer wants a year from now. I had a friend who bought a "digital-ready" TV. Two months later he found out his great deal really wasn't. Is the current signage in big box retailers' aisles more like the "Vista-ready" logo from a year ago?

Posted by: umm.huh | January 30, 2008 3:09 PM | Report abuse

DGC : This will not affect those that subscribe to cable. You will not be forced to get a cable box. This only pertains to those that use the equivalent of rabbit ears to get signals.

And the converter box can be installed either at each TV with an antenna, or if you have a roof antenna it can be installed to service every outlet that is hooked up to the cable from the antenna.

Honestly, I hope they expand the over-the-air programming similar to Cable just so we can have a small reprive from their pricing structure. With upcoming Internet Usage Billing changes from an Unlimited model to pay-per-bandwidth, I think most consumers will be looking for a way to save some money, and for those like me who watch the basics on TV and dont bother with Sports and Movie packages, free expanded over-the-air TV would be something I would be interested in to avoid having to have cable or DTV.

Posted by: LL22102 | January 30, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

It's hard to believe that there are many people out there who still get broadcast signals, but my parents are among them. Here's my question:

My parents have at least four TVs in their house. All the TVs are wired to an antenna on the roof via coax cables. (And they still get lousy reception.) Do they have to get a converter box for all four TVs, or is it possible to connect a single box to the antenna that would feed all TVs in the house?

BTW, I think the confusion on this is a great way for electronics manufacturers to sell more TVs.

Posted by: ArlVA | January 30, 2008 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I am up in Ithaca, NY and in order to even get local stations (Syracuse) you have to sign up for a basic $17 a month cable package, yet they are still advertising to us that we need to get digital converter boxes. It seems like the television industry is purposely making this conversion confusing in order to wheedle us into giving them more money.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 30, 2008 4:00 PM | Report abuse

ArIVA : Read my post directly above yours

Posted by: LL22102 | January 30, 2008 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Can you get straight answers from cable companies as to when they plan to stop transmitting analog signals and transmit digital only? We are getting hints from ours that this is coming soon, but they refuse to give a specific date. When this happens:
1. Will each piece of analog equipment need a separate digital box (presumably rented from the cable company)?
2. Will digital/HD equipment be able to process the incoming cable signals directly?
3. Will the dtv-to-analog converters coming on the market soon be able to work with cable-company digital signals?

Posted by: Anonymous | January 30, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

LL22102,

If the 'converter box' is in fact a tuner which selects the channel to be viewed, and one is installed with its output to feed multiple TVs, those TVs will all be restricted to watching the same channel, correct? And if it's not a tuner which selects a single channel (the closest comparison I can think of is the old analog 'block converters' which "transposed" a set of cable channels so that a broadcast (over-the-air, e.g., VHF/UHF channels 2-83) NTSC tuner could receive them), how would the individual TVs tune separate channels / subchannels?

Posted by: Charles | January 30, 2008 4:54 PM | Report abuse

ARIva - the converter box is basically *just* like a cable box, in that it can tune just one thing at a time, so you need one for each TV that you want to watch on.

Rob, I think you're giving people too much detail in your columns. Also continue to stress that DTV is NOT HDTV.

I envision something like

A) Can you receive CNN on *ALL* TVs in your house? If so, you do not need any converter boxes at this time.

I picked CNN because that's a fairly low-level basic service that most people are likely to get. Feel free to insert another.

B) Do you pay for a 'lifeline' cable service including a select small group of channels and can get those on all TVs in your house? If so, you don't need any converter boxes at this time.

C) If you've reached this point, some TVs in your house may need converter boxes. The ones that need them will have what's called NTSC (analog) tuners. The simplest way to figure out if you have an NTSC (analog) or ATSC (digital) tuner on your TV is to look at how you select channels. If you select channel 4.1, 4.2, 5.1, 5.2, 5.3 etc, then you have an ATSC tuner. If you select channel 4,5,7,9, then you have an NTSC tuner and this set will *NOT* be able to view any programming after 2/2009.

Obviously a crude first go-round, but use the questions that you get from the millions of people that have no idea what's going on to make up a good Q/A.

Posted by: Aaron | January 30, 2008 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Two questions for rural areas, and cable/satellite subscribers.

1. How well do digital signals reach outlying areas in the 60-70 mile range? Will new indoor or outdoor aerial antennas be required?

2. Will DirecTV, Dish, or cable providers be able or required to carry local stations' new digital channels, or just the main ones like they do now?

I still rely on rabbit ears as a backup source for regional weather and storm alerts if my DirecTV reception gets blocked during a storm.

I currently get the DC locals package with my DirecTV but haven't heard or seen any plans for adding feeds from the local stations' new HD or digital channels.

Posted by: Ann Anemas | January 30, 2008 5:42 PM | Report abuse

I would like to know what will happen to the QAM signals that are currently provided by cable companies that currently allow me to watch HDTV via the current cable drop without paying any added charges for HD or digital transmission. I noticed that when I tried the Comcast digital service this did not enhance my ability to receive HDTV nor digital transmissions for the regular Comcast cable stations. I am wondering if QAM will disappear and become useless.

Posted by: Don Moldover | January 30, 2008 6:27 PM | Report abuse

I would like to know what will happen to the QAM signals that are currently provided by cable companies that currently allow me to watch HDTV via the current cable drop without paying any added charges for HD or digital transmission. I noticed that when I tried the Comcast digital service this did not enhance my ability to receive HDTV nor digital transmissions for the regular Comcast cable stations. I am wondering if QAM will disappear and become useless.

Posted by: Don Moldover | January 30, 2008 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Another fun fact about HD reception: I just found out from Verizon FIOS that I will need to get a new set top box to receive HD and it will cost an extra $5 per month.

Posted by: Tom Lorsung | January 30, 2008 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Ann Anemas: Digital television will work at about the same distance as analog television worked. The FCC did a lot of work to determine the power levels for each broadcast station to keep their coverage area basically the same.

There will be two substantial differences you will or may see. The first of these is that most broadcast stations will be transmitting over a different TV channel than they previously did. But you may not notice this because the digital TV standard ATSC includes a method for the station to identify its original channel number even on the new frequency. You can select the channel number the broadcaster continues to advertise and a digital TV or digital set top converter box will find the station.

The other difference is that many of the broadcasters changing channels are moving from VHF to UHF or from UHF to VHF. This may affect how good your digital receptions ends up being. Unless you have a combination VHF/UHF antenna, you may have to buy a different antenna for distant stations than you needed for analog. Other than that, TV antennas work on digital just as they do with analog. There are no special antennas for digital, but in some cases, reception may not be as good as it was before.

Most satellite and cable providers are already receiving the digital transmissions from broadcasters to supply them to their customers. If you get your service from these companies, you can continue to use the tuner/converter they provide with your existing TV.

The broadcast stations that these providers are required to carry will not change. What may change is how many of the program streams for each station that could be carried. Analog TV has only one program stream per channel. Digital can have more than one, and some stations may choose two or more programs. At least the main program stream should continue to be carried.

Satellite providers are adding more channel space through new satellite launches to expand their HD coverage. Carriage of broadcast HD may not come online for some time, depending on your location. Larger cities will be first. But the standard TV carriage should continue as before, even after all broadcasters change to digital.

Posted by: Phil Howard | January 30, 2008 10:52 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see a comparison of some basic converter boxes. I'm sure they're not all created equal, so I want to use my "free converter" coupons wisely.

Posted by: William | January 31, 2008 12:59 AM | Report abuse

Two things about the digital transition that haven't received a lot of attention yet:

1. VCRs will lose a lot of their usefulness. I know that a lot of folks only use their VCRs to play prerecorded movies, but many use them to time-shift broadcast TV. After the transition, you can no longer use the VCR's timer to change channels for timed recording or use the VCR's tuner to record one channel while watching another.

2. All those cute little portable LCD TVs they were selling a few years back become useless. As far as I know, nobody's making a portable converter box.

Posted by: Joe Moore | January 31, 2008 3:44 AM | Report abuse

Rob, following up on the VCR comment, a primer on how to time-shift DTV would be useful. Things are very complex for early adopters without HDMI connections. Thank the producers and distributors of programming for this standard, as it provides a way to enforce digital rights management. Their efforts overall have led to the confusion on this issue.

BTW, we live 60 miles south and get most of the area's digital signals (chs. 14 and 50's digital signals don't quite make it) over-the-air.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 31, 2008 7:06 AM | Report abuse

Some information on if/how DVRs and TiVOs will work with the new system. Will the transition be transparent to current DVRs? We are looking but haven't bought one yet largely because we aren't sure what features will be need to be compatible with the new all digital broadcasts.

Posted by: SLW | January 31, 2008 9:04 AM | Report abuse

We couldn't get the Washington TV stations clearly in Stafford, so we got Cox Cable. We have a digital cable box and we get all the stations great! We won't have to change a thing for our analog TV's. But, if you have a HDTV and want a wide screen picture, you have to upgrade to a HD digital cable box and select Cox's HD channels.

Posted by: JohnHH3 | January 31, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

It would seem that all portable T.V.'s will be useless. This will effect people who use them for such things as sporting events, power outages, truckers, and R.V.'s. The city I live in, all the stations are full power and will switch to DTV. No more T.V. at lunchtime!

Posted by: tebot | January 31, 2008 1:31 PM | Report abuse

dtg asked about Comcast using this change as leverage to "force" analog subscribers to go digital. Of course they will try, as will all the other providers. Prices have gotten way out of hand for cable tv and internet and they will leverage any change they can. If you look at their pricing, to get decent internet you have to subscribe to levels of tv service that are ridiculous.
I have tv and high speed internet with Comcast. Can anyone compare, from personal experience, Comcast to Verizon Fios (spelling?)? I need the internet speed - is Verizon Fios as fast? What about the tv - I just went HD and love the real HD channels. Is Fios as good (there are too many sports channels on cable - I wish there was a way to trash them)

Posted by: lotus1 | January 31, 2008 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Re the question about QAM tuners. Yes, they will continue to work. Most digital TVs made in the last couple of years have QAM tuners and this allows them to handle cable input on a digital television. A QAM tuner allows your TV to receive all unscrambled digital cable signals without a cable box. This usually means that you can get the local high definition channels and some things like Discovery HD without subscribing to digital service or needing a digital cable box. This may vary depending on your cable company.

Posted by: JazzGuyy | January 31, 2008 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Verizon Fios is Fiber optic a.k.a. way better than regular cable, it is the future standard for bandwidth. Dish Network and DirecTV are already digital, so if you get your local channels through them you will be fine in 2009. If you get local channels over the air you will need an ATSC tuner in a new(er) TV or a converter box. The digital(DTV) and high definition(HD) channels over the air are amazing in my area, way better than analog cable.

Posted by: Jon | January 31, 2008 5:44 PM | Report abuse

With a converter box, how will I change channels? I presume the TV stays on channel 3 to receive the signal from the converter box. So my TV remote will be needed for volume control, but will be useless for channel changes. Are we couch potatoes going to be French fried?

Posted by: jfehribach | January 31, 2008 6:58 PM | Report abuse

My question is that I have comcast I just purchased a new digital tv but have 2 analog tv's. In Feb 09 I will be ok with the new tv but I don't want to give Comcast any more money for a converter box. Can I buy two converter boxes with the coupon to put on my analog tv's and will my cable hookup to the converter box. I hate giving Comcast money.

Posted by: RITA POZNICK | February 17, 2008 12:01 AM | Report abuse

My question is that I have comcast I just purchased a new digital tv but have 2 analog tv's. In Feb 09 I will be ok with the new tv but I don't want to give Comcast any more money for a converter box. Can I buy two converter boxes with the coupon to put on my analog tv's and will my cable hookup to the converter box. I hate giving Comcast money.

Posted by: RITA POZNICK | February 17, 2008 12:03 AM | Report abuse

My question is that I have comcast I just purchased a new digital tv but have 2 analog tv's. In Feb 09 I will be ok with the new tv but I don't want to give Comcast any more money for a converter box. Can I buy two converter boxes with the coupon to put on my analog tv's and will my cable hookup to the converter box. I hate giving Comcast money.

Posted by: RITA POZNICK | February 17, 2008 12:03 AM | Report abuse

My question is that I have comcast I just purchased a new digital tv but have 2 analog tv's. In Feb 09 I will be ok with the new tv but I don't want to give Comcast any more money for a converter box. Can I buy two converter boxes with the coupon to put on my analog tv's and will my cable hookup to the converter box. I hate giving Comcast money.

Posted by: RITA POZNICK | February 17, 2008 12:04 AM | Report abuse

My family have been satellite droputs for 5 years now, and have been using a large channelmaster with a preamp and rotor. We had to replace our main tv last year so after we got over the sticker shock, we bought a HD flat screen.

We were surprized at all the digital channels already available. But the problem with digital OTA , is that is is either ALL or NOTHING. We lost half of our digital channels one day. We later found out that our neighbor had taken down their antenna. Apparently we were able to enhance our reception off of their antenna.

We are now working on getting a second antenna to fix the problem. The FCC has stated that they are not planning on adding signal repeaters to increse reception range. From what I understand, and have experienced, OTA reception will be problematic if there is not a close range transmission tower.

if the antenna setup doen't work...good thing I still have my satellite dish!!!

Posted by: GarlicCapital | March 4, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

crank up the signal because during the day it gets weaker and weaker and some disapppear and others are unwatchable.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 9, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

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