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Checking Up on the DTV Conversion

Earlier this week, the Consumer Electronics Association held its annual Washington Forum, a multi-day gabfest on tech-policy issues. With less than a year to go before the shutoff of most analog TV broadcasts, the digital-TV transition was Topic A this year.

I spent a good chunk of Wednesday and Thursday at this event, looking to see how things are going with that. I was particularly interested in two DTV topics: the cheap converter boxes that let old analog sets receive digital over-the-air (i.e., not cable) broadcasts, and the $40 coupons the government is handing out to subsidize their purchase.

At a panel discussion Thursday morning--featuring representatives from the Federal Communications Commission and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, plus the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association--and during a luncheon speech by NTIA Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Meredith Baker, I got a little more context about the transition.

The biggest obstacle remains a lack of information, something my colleague Kim Hart chronicled in a front-page story on Monday.

The NAB's Jonathan Collegio professed optimism, saying in the panel discussion that the group's polls indicated that 83 percent of the households relying on over-the-air broadcasts were "aware" of the DTV transition and that "increasing numbers" could recite the analog-shutdown date, Feb. 17, 2009. (Call me a cynic, but "increasing numbers" usually means "less than half.")

There is still plenty of time, and everyone at the panel talked about plans to step up their marketing and education efforts--online, in TV ads, in stores, in the mail and in person. FCC Media Bureau chief Monica Desai, for example, noted that the commission's DTV pamphlet has just been translated into Navajo, on top of all the other languages it's available.

It's also unclear just how many analog sets will actually wind up getting connected to one of these boxes. In her speech, the NTIA's Baker said that only 13 percent of households rely on over-the-air broadcasts. But the NCTA's Rob Stoddard said in the panel discussion that 25 percent of "connected" households that pay for TV have at least one TV at home that isn't hooked up to any such service. Many of those screens are only used as monitors for DVD players or video-game consoles, but others are plugged into over-the-air antennas and will need a converter box.

When I've tested these boxes--one from Philips, the other from LG--I've had great results in each test. I've also heard good reports from readers and other reviewers, and the folks at the panel expected that viewers nationwide would be happy as well--Collegio called digital TV "the rebirth of broadcast television."

(As an aside: During the luncheon, Baker took a moment to quote the glowing review of a converter box that one reader posted on this blog, calling yours truly out by name. It's can be a little weird when the people you cover compliment your work--as a journalist, that makes you worry that you're not being hard enough on these people!)

Many readers, however, still seem to think that they'll have to get cable, just because their analog reception is so awful. Those folks might be surprised to know that Stoddard said he expects cable and satellite firms to pick up only one to two million households as a result of the digital transition.

Finally, during her speech Baker provided some numbers on the government's $40 coupons--which look more like credit cards. She said about 9.5 million of these have been requested, 3.5 million have been mailed out and almost 293,000 have been redeemed in stores so far. If you haven't done so yet, you can order one online at dtv2009.gov or calling 888-388-2009. (Curious about a "security certificate" error your browser may report when you visit that page? See this Sunday's Help File.)

Have you picked up one of those coupons? What's your experience been redeeming it in a store, then using the box it helped buy?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 4, 2008; 1:41 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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Comments

We got our vouchers about a week ago, and after some online research decided the RCA (Thomson) DTA800 was the way to go - buttons on front of the unit, apparently has a SmartAntenna (CEA 909) interface, and the lowest-priced of the bunch.

Alas, when I got to Wal*Mart, they only had the Magnavox (Philips) TB100 - though at a lower price than their web page shows, equal to the RCA. If I want non-remote buttons, I gotta go elsewhere and pay ~ $10 more. But I'll probably go with the Magnavox this evening for one of the vouchers, then keep looking and waiting to see if any new options materialize before the second one expires.

Posted by: Charles | April 4, 2008 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I noticed on a couple of TV shows this week (last night's Survivor being one of them) that they ran a crawl at the top of the screen telling about the upcoming conversion and that some people will need converter boxes, etc. I think the other show I saw the crawl on may also have been on CBS/Channel 9.

Posted by: Ghak | April 4, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I got 2 coupons from the program, and redeemed both last Friday. Used one at Radio Shack, the other at Best Buy. Best Buy has the boxes out on the shelf, while Radio Shack has them in their stock room. No problems using the coupons at either retailer. Haven't hooked the boxes up yet.

Posted by: Temple Hills | April 4, 2008 3:53 PM | Report abuse

The efforts to inform people appear to be generally successful. People got the word and understand how to get the governments sponsored coupons. Now that they have the coupons the big questions start. I've searched the internet for information on all of the coupon valid converter boxes, but which one? A list of boxes is available here at https://www.ntiadtv.gov/cecb_list.cfm but it doesn't have the individual converter box details I need like this site http://www.ezdigitaltv.com/index.html
Now that I have my coupons, which converter box matches "my" situation? Which converter box do "I" buy? Where do "I" go to buy it? Maybe I should just forget the coupon, buy a new TV, and switch to cable or satellite? A lot of study is required to make a knowledgeable choice. Answering all of "my" questions will take a little more information than just public services add on TV or an article in the media. It's "my" responsibility to figure this out.

Posted by: Chris S | April 4, 2008 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Chris. I feel overwhelmed and under-informed in how to choose converter box. I would hate to use my coupon only to find that I have chosen a box that does not have a or b or c that I should have for optimal use by my 96 year old mother and my rapidly aging brain.

Posted by: Rosie | April 4, 2008 9:22 PM | Report abuse

So far, I've been unable to obtain the coupons.I live in a rural area where we do not have a mailbox. We receive all our mail via a USPS PO Box. They will not mail coupons to a PO Box. I've apealed their refusal and, so far (one month), have not received a response.

Posted by: Ken W | April 5, 2008 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Got Best Buy's INSIGNIA brand converter.
Works great, easy to use and install. Cables and remote battery included.

Posted by: Mark | April 5, 2008 6:12 PM | Report abuse

>Many readers, however, still seem to think that they'll have to get cable, just because their analog reception is so awful.

This is what I've been thinking. I have an antenna on one television in my house (two, if you count the b&w portable in the bathroom). The picture on the one is ALWAYS terrible. It's snowy and staticky, at its best.

I haven't been able to get an answer about how digital over-the-air will be better. I'm thinking that the "over-the-air" will still be a problem, despite it being digital.

Posted by: Paul | April 6, 2008 4:01 AM | Report abuse

1. Which converter box gives the best picture? My SDTV has an S-video input.
2. Which converter box best receives far away stations?
3. Will better converter boxes become available in the next few months which will not be "coupon eligible"?
Thanks.

Posted by: Glen D | April 6, 2008 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Upon the advice of Consumers
Reports I bought, at CIRCUIT CITY the ZENITH DTT900.
It works very well. I live in a FARADAY cage, a hirise apartment and rabbit ear reception without the digital conversion set is impossible. I am pleased with this set and hope it continues to function.It seems to run a little warm?

Posted by: Harry | April 7, 2008 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Mark said that Best Buy's INSIGNIA brand converter is a good deal. When I reviewed the specs on bestbuy.com, it seems there is no S-video output, only composite, which is not as good. For the non-geeks, an S-video connector resembles the round multi-pin thing for your mouse or keyboard, while composite is the yellow RCA jack just like the red and white stereo audio connections. Big question is why do the discount cards expire after 90 days, a year would be more to the point.

Posted by: Bill | April 7, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I hooked up the Best Buy INSIGNIA brand converter last night. My old analog tv is so old that it doesn't have audio jacks, so I used an RF modulator to hook up the audio cables that came in the INSIGNIA box from Best Buy.

Before I added the converter box, the signal from Maryland Public Television was always fuzzy. After hooking up the box, Maryland Public Television comes in extremely clear. I'm really amazed at how good the picture quality is now on my old analog tv.

People, digital over-the-air IS better. Go ahead, hook up a converter box and see.

Posted by: Temple Hills, again | April 7, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I got two Zenith-LG boxes at Circuit City, and had no problems with the coupons. The coupons are actually Visa cards, and are processed as such. (The coupons show up as "VSA" on the receipt.)

The end result was a clearer picture and more channels.

Due to poor signal strength, I was previously unable to get analog-13, analog-29, and analog-23 at all. The digital versions of these channels comes in perfectly.

I also like the additional digital subchannels, such as those broadcast by public television.

For those who want to adjust their antennas, the on screen Signal Strength meter is a nice feature.

http://www.zenith.com/dtv/dtt900.html

Posted by: JohnJ | April 7, 2008 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm still waiting for the coupons I registered for in January. We're right between the New York and Philadelphia markets, and get minimal OTA analog reception. I'm skeptical that digital will lessen our reliance on cable, but can't find out until they send the coupons. What I really will need, though, for OTA use is something that talks to my VCRs to enable them to get the signals. I prefer to tape than to watch live, and don't want to pay monthly fees for DVR if I can avoid it. When will they build digital tuners into recording devices that don't come with monthly fees?

Posted by: Lois | April 8, 2008 1:39 AM | Report abuse

Reading over the comments here and in other places, I still find it surprising how much fear and confusion there are regarding the conversion to over-the-air (OTA) digital television. It's really not complicated, but it seems that many folks are unwilling to put forth even a basic level of effort to educate themselves about the subject.

Someone who has the know-how to post to a blog such as Rob's should also be able to navigate to a search engine web site (e.g., Google) and type "DTV converter box" into the search box and press the "enter" button. The same person ought to be capable of choosing an appropriate converter box from the search results by either consulting the manual that came with their TV set or examining the set itself to understand the types of available connections. All of this research should take 5-10 minutes, which is probably about as much time as most readers will spend on this story in Rob's blog.

About cost anxiety: with the $40 voucher, the remaining cost is low enough that most folks don't have to worry about making a big financial mistake here. This is not like the LCD vs. plasma question, where a large amount of money is at stake. We're talking about a $20 - $30 net expense in most cases! Of course, the people who have trouble obtaining vouchers are in a different category, and that needs to be fixed.

By the way, this topic is not even close to geek territory. Setting up one of these boxes is WAY simpler than programming a VCR, and you might not even need to read the manual. Shouldn't take more than 5 minutes once you open the box. 1) Connect converter box to TV via appropriate cables (likely included with the box); 2) Hook TV antenna to converter box (no, you don't need a special kind of antenna, although most digital TV is broadcast over UHF); 3) Have the converter box scan for OTA channels (this might require a quick glance at the manual). That should be it.

Finally, if you do not use an antenna to receive OTA television signals, stop worrying. Cable/satellite signals are already converted as necessary from digital to analog by your TV or via a set top box supplied by your subscription TV service provider. So you folks who pay for your programming can just stop thinking about this now and relax.

To the OTA crowd, stop reading this blog for 5-10 minutes and go select a DTV converter box. You'll love OTA DTV -- it's a huge improvement over analog, and you might find it even more enjoyable since YOU did the work to make it happen!

Posted by: weary | April 8, 2008 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I have purchased 3 different brands of converter box, and they are all quite different. Some will control a Sony (off-on), others not. But none of them will work indoors. You simply have to have a pretty good outside antenna to avoid constant pixilation even in my urban location. The rural market is simply going to be abandoned by digital.

Posted by: George13 | April 8, 2008 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Last night I hooked up the Zenith digital tv converter box I purchased at Radio Shack. It looks almost identical to the INSIGNIA unit I purchased at Best Buy.

Both units were easy to install, and both provided a better picture on an old analog tv. I use an antenna in the attic of my house to get over-the-air signals.

My dad asked me what happens when he wears out the remote control that comes with either the Zenith or INSIGNIA converter boxes. The manual for each unit mentions that you can program a universal remote to control the converter box.

Posted by: Temple Hills, back again | April 9, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

After researching which box to buy, I decided on the Zenith. I was disappointed that I had to pay 25.00 with coupon. My second disappointment was I live in a lake area with the nearest town approx 25 miles away..OOPS, No Digital signals within 42 mile radius. My fault I guess because I spent all this time researching boxes I did not research broadcasting towers location. So heads up to rural area folks. CHECK to see if you can even get a signal. :)

Posted by: Sunshine | April 10, 2008 9:17 AM | Report abuse

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Posted by: Jacob yadsz | April 11, 2008 11:43 PM | Report abuse

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