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Have I Answered All Your DTV Questions?

I hope today's column answers every possible question and concern you've had about the upcoming switch to digital television broadcasts -- but I've written too many of these "what to do about DTV" columns to have too much confidence in that.

Instead, I'll be happy if today's piece covers most of the points that have kept coming up in your e-mails, Web-chat questions, calls and letters -- some banged out on manual typewriters.

For your further reference, here's a quick recap of some of my earlier DTV coverage:

* My 2008-vintage guidance about the digital transition didn't go into as many specifics as today's but provides a little more context about the history of DTV.

* Also in that winter, I briefly reviewed digital-TV converter boxes from Magnavox and Zenith on my blog.

* Back in the spring of 2007, I tried out a few DVD recorders with digital-TV tuners and wrote about them in my column and an accompanying blog post.

* Here's more detail on why I think a DVD burner with a digital tuner is a far better option for recording over-the-air broadcasts than a VCR hooked into a DTV converter box.

* DVD recorders, however, aren't your best option to add DTV reception to an "HD-ready" set; instead, see the alternatives I suggested in this recent Help File item.

* Last fall, I devoted a different Help File piece to describing a few ways in which digital broadcasts might improve in quality after the shutoff of analog broadcasts next month.

* Digital converter boxes can seem simple, but it's quite possible to hook them up to your existing hardware incorrectly. Here's the story of how one reader went astray.

* What can you do with an old analog set that you can't sell or give away? Read this Help File for a summary of environmentally-sound disposal options.

* What about antennas? Read after the jump for my report on a new indoor model that, under some circumstances, delivered significantly better performance than an older antenna.

Updated: Readers have suggested two other options you might find useful.

* If you'd like to use a converter box with a battery-powered TV, Winegard sells a $14.99 battery pack for its converter, which it says is good for up to 18 hours of viewing on a charge.

* You may find that a signal booster--a powered amplifier to plug in between a TV or converter box and an antenna--helps long-distance DTV reception. As one reader wrote:

My 80+ year old parents live on Cape Cod. The stations they receive are located in Boston MA and Providence RI - distances they were told would result in them getting little or no digital signals.... When we installed the digital converter without the booster, the TV picked up very few of the analog stations it had previously and none of the digital signals. With the booster installed, it received more analog stations than it had before and a wide range of digital signals. The booster is a standard Radio Shack purchase.

Another reader made the same point and suggested another source to buy one:

The cheapest place to get it is in eBay. I got several 25 db (signal amplification: 200 times) at $6.95 each, even including shipping (8.95, less if you buy more), it is a lot cheaper and a lot less hassle than getting a new antenna.

All that reporting and research, as well as today's column -- only the latest in a series of digital-TV stories by me that stretches back to 1998 -- cannot, however, answer one question: What sort of digital reception will you see in your own home?

As my colleague Kim Hart wrote in yesterday's paper, some viewers are discovering that their existing antennas don't work, or don't work without adjustments that weren't necessary with analog. But at the same time, the reports I've received from numerous readers suggest that DTV can deliver in most places -- say, the guy living 14 miles outside of Richmond who wrote in to say he only needed a $6.95 rabbit-ears antenna to get all the major networks, or the Alexandria resident who uses an antenna fastened to his chimney to tune in both Washington and Baltimore's network affiliates.

Then there's me: I've had nearly complete success tuning into local digital broadcasts at home in Arlington on a variety of TVs, DVD recorders and converter boxes, all with a cheap tabletop antenna I bought a dozen years ago.

I know digital TV is for real, and I think I know how to make it work if it doesn't perform the first time... but I can't do that for each of you. All I can do is keep rewriting these how-to pieces and hope that one of them serves to steer you right.

You can keep helping me out: In the comments, let me know what sort of hardware, techniques and tricks have improved your own digital-TV reception. Please include where you're tuning in from, so other readers can see which suggestions might work best for their own locations.


---

I haven't tested too many TV antennas, but I can share the results I've had with one new-design model, RCA's ANT1500. This $60 plastic slab, roughly 10 by 11 inches long, can be easily tucked away behind a flat-panel TV or on top of other stereo or video components, like a DVD player or audio/video receiver.

(For a much more detailed look at TV antennas, see this lengthy thread on the popular AVS Forum site.)

My first test of this antenna took place in my mom's house in a New Jersey town almost 20 miles northwest of the major network affiliates' transmitters in New York City. Many of her neighbors have rooftop TV antennas, and when I plugged in the Terk tabletop antenna I bought a dozen years ago to a Zenith converter box, I was not surprised to see only three channels, all from smaller stations closer to her home, come in clearly out of the 7 identified by the Zenith tuner. With the RCA antenna plugged in, however, the converter box detected anywhere from 6 to 21 channels depending on its orientation--laying it flat gave the best results, with three of the four big NYC networks usually viewable and nine local channels (six from a single station) looking just about perfect.

I repeated this test in Arlington. With the old Terk antenna, the Zenith box mapped out 22 channels, including every major commercial and public station in D.C.; only two of those 22 channels, both from Baltimore stations, were unviewable. Then I tried the RCA antenna in the horizontal orientation that had worked so well in New Jersey; the Zenith box could only find 15 channels this time and missed Washington's PBS affiliate WETA entirely. But with the RCA antenna resting vertically (it comes with a small metal stand to prop it up), the Zenith box identified 34 channels. Most of these added signals came from Baltimore stations and were, at best, on the borderline of viewability, but I was also able to view MHz Networks' five digital channels for the first time ever.

The moral of the story: Don't take no for an answer from your antenna, and if your antenna persists in telling you no, try a different model. You may need to spend some time positioning the antenna this way and that way before it can find all your usual stations, but with that effort you should have a good chance at locking in all the networks you watched in analog--and maybe some you didn't even know existed.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  January 22, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  TV , Tips  
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Comments

Will I be able to receive tv signals via the metal plate in my head like I can analog broadcasts?

Posted by: Ronnie76 | January 22, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Excellent article and blog post, truly needed given the level of ambiguity and as many consumers have yet to make the transition. Hopefully the government will act quickly on extending the DTV program as noted here: http://tinyurl.com/digitaltvsnafu.

Please note that a digital tuner in a new TV or (as you noted) via a "DVD recorder w/ digital tuner" may not solve the challenge of getting all your favourite channels. Whilst the DTV transition happens, many cable companies are also moving currently free channels (available in basic cable subscriptions) to encrypted ones. This means that customers will likely have to obtain a specialty set top digital converter box in order to view these channels in the future.

BTW, +1 for the Thomson RCA ANT1550 Multi-directional Digital Amplified Antenna which is indoor/outdoor, easily fits on a wall or in the attic.

Also, I found very useful information on Consumer Reports' site. They offer additional information and product reviews for digital converter boxes. See http://blogs.consumerreports.org/electronics/digital_tv/index.html.

Posted by: msweatt | January 22, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

What I want to know is: Who are these people who are still being surprised by the upcoming transition? And the ones getting worse reception?

My 80 year old Dad, lives in Cedar City UT. The local translator puts out about 15W. When I went there last summer he already had the converter box hooked up, connected to the rabbit ears, and was getting better reception than he ever did with analog. If he can figure this out...

Posted by: wiredog | January 22, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I love online comments from people claiming poverty and ignorance. (See any of the hundreds of stories the Post has run).

You've taken steps to get online and frequent a newspaper site, but you're too poor to update your TV once every 25 years and apparently don't read the 'news'.

Delicious irony.

Posted by: JkR- | January 22, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

"You've taken steps to get online and frequent a newspaper site, but you're too poor to update your TV once every 25 years and apparently don't read the 'news'."

This is the type of comment that frosts me. The digital conversion was decided more than a decade ago but TVs continued to be sold without digital converters into 2007.

I would alter your statement to say "too poor to update your TV every TWO years."

This is my central gripe about the conversion: digital tuners should have been required in all TVs and VCRs at least five years before the conversion. This would better align the conversion with the normal replacement rate of this equipment in our homes.

I live near downtown Silver Spring and I get seven local channels, which is what I got before. We're still using an old set of rabbit ears on top of the TV. I'm wait-listed for a second coupon, which probably will not arrive.

I expect that used converter boxes will be available for free in a couple months as people give up on the arrangement and get a new TV/DVR or get cable.

Posted by: joemcg | January 22, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Very useful information Rob. I haven't worried too much about the upcoming DTV transition because I am a CATV subscriber (Cox Fairfax analog cable.)

I think the DTV transition will come and go (either Feb. 17th or later) and then the next big pain will be the time when the various cable companies dump their analog feeds entirely. It will come in the form of all previously "cable ready" analog TV's having to get hooked up to a cable company set-top box. Even if you have a digital tuner TV right now, you can't get digital cable from Cox (or FIOS TV from Verizon) without renting a set-top box for each TV.

My current Cox analog cable service in Fairfax County only has the digital broadcasts for Channels 4, 7, 26 and 50. The 4, 7, and 26 channels do have the multicasts. Sometime earlier Cox stopped feeding the digital/HD versions of Channels 5 and 9.

Posted by: ScottM5 | January 22, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: joemcg | January 22, 2009 2:20 PM

You're suggesting that you knew about this 10 years ago and bought a TV without a digital tuner in the past 5 years?

TV's don't 'continue to be sold'(passive voice) without an active buyer. They don't sell themselves. Buyers have some responsibility for research, no?

And they have had digital tuners for at least the last five years, most of those years with a required digital tuner.

Posted by: JkR- | January 22, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Rob, once the DTV transition takes place, will we see more tv station's broadcasting in HD?(say thru the comcast oligopoly)
And have you written about the "mechanics" of the cable & satelite provider's HD-lineup choices, before?
Thanks!

Posted by: Max23 | January 22, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

If they delay implementation b/c they need to make more coupons available..I guess that's ok but if they delay b/c folks need more time to get ready...no dice. If folks aren't ready by feb they still won't be ready after three more mos.....folks will figure they need to do something when they turn on the tv and get nothing....whenever that is......hard hearted Hannah here.

Posted by: tbva | January 22, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

A few days after your local DTV conversion date, have your DTV converter box re-scan for all available channels.

Here's why: many stations will be changing their setup to take advantage of a digital-only environment by:

* removing their analog transmission gear and moving the digital equipment to a better spot on their tower

* transferring the digital signals from the UHF band to VHF band (hopefully making reception easier)

* boosting the digital signal strength (i.e. no longer needing to power both an analog and a digital signal). If you re-scan, you may discover a station(s) that you couldn't receive before.

Posted by: taskforceken | January 22, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Rob: Great columns on subject, as always. My only question: We have two quite new Samsung DTVs-- 32" and 40", and TV picture comes fr local cable. Both sets are 720, not 1080 quality, We love and recommend both sets-- terrific picture quality. But... recently my DTV signal from the local CBS station disappeared fr the 40" set. The 32" set (in another room) comntinues to get both the CBS analog and digital signals, so I know it is the set, not a cable issue. I continue to get both analog and digital signals fr ABC and NBC et al. I have re-tried my automatic channel set-up process again that I used initially-- but no luck at reactivating this DTV signal. Any sggestions on what I can do? Thnx for any advice---

Posted by: wevans3 | January 22, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Slowly but slowly, Comcast is migrating "standard cable" channels (such as C-SPAN) off of their analog signal onto digital-only signal, so we either have to plunk down for another set-top box or get a new DTV to receive those channels.

There have been occasions, most notoriously during bad weather, when digital channels through the set-top box are frozen while the same channel's analog signal going to our other TVs chugs along just fine. So sometimes we play musical chairs. Myself, I find the blotchy dark tones from a digital picture (think big chunks of the "Harry Potter" movies) not nearly as watchable as the smooth gradient dark tones of an analog broadcast.

We have heard local reports that Comcast makes digital customers rent a set-top box even for those people who have HD DTV with a CableCard. And proving once again the power of monopoly pricing, under some circumstances (such as with certain DVRs), Comcast will charge you for using your own CableCard. What's the latest on this flavor of the culture wars? I think a column or blog on CableCard technology would be a great read during this transition period.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | January 22, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Ronnie 76

As an Extra Class Ham radio operator of almost 50 years of Ham Radio experience, your receiving capabilities will more likely depend on the fillings in your teeth. A loose filling SOMETIMES acts like a crystal diode in the old boy scout radio projects for crystal radios and strong local stations can often be heard thru your teeth [unless they are dentures LOL.] Never heard of a plate in ones head doing the same thing, but if it does AND YOU SEE TV TOO, instead of just hearing it, you might become famous LOL.

A point about converters is in order.

A couple of clerks in Best Buy were of the impression that by using a splitter, more than 1 TV can be run off the converter box.
That may be true, so long as everyone wants to watch the same channel, which is controlled by the converter, not the TV, which is on Ch 3 or 4, just like when a DVD recorder is feeding it.

So, if you have multiple TVs and want to watch DIFFERENT channels, multiple converters will be required.

A word about antennas is also in order.

With an analog TV signal, the picture transmission was on AM [just like your radio] and the sound was on FM [just like your radio.] FM means frequency modulation and AM means amplitude modulation. Both can be used on ALL frequencies, BUT AM signals are subject to noise and static, where FM is generally not. Thus some Baltimore TV stations come in with lots of distortion in the picture [the AM signal] but the audio is often much better than the picture [the FM signal.]

With digital TV, it will likely be an all or nothing experience, so IN THEORY because I haven't tried this YET [on digital TV anyway] a long wire antenna, usually the longer the better, should work great. This is merely a really long coat hanger and if you have never used a coat hanger for an antenna on your TV, [as a poor student, or whatever] this economy may be just the time to try one. LOL

Posted by: brucerealtor@gmail.com | January 23, 2009 2:19 AM | Report abuse

@brucerealtor

The best long wire antennas are made from speaker wire, cut to length. Learned that on in the Army, where I was a commo guy (a wiredog). A homebrew antenna should have no trouble picking up signals from 50 miles or more /if/ there's a clear line of sight.

Posted by: wiredog | January 23, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

When were digital tuners required on TVs?
http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/digitaltv.html
"As of March 1, 2007, all television receivers shipped in interstate commerce or imported into the United States must contain a digital tuner."

Of course, who would buy an analog TV in 2007 (or 2006, 2005)? I would guess poorer, older and less sophistocated shoppers. Pretty much the people who are having trouble with the converter boxes.

I'll fess up; I'm not stuck with a recent-vintage analog television. I watch some TV almost every day but I haven't bought one since 1986. These amazing appliances can operate at trivial cost for decades with free broadcast programming.

As Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) would say: "Is TV the greatest invention ever? Well, duh!"

Posted by: joemcg | January 23, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

I bought an RCA DT800 converter box. (The converter was reviewed on the CNET Web site - they liked the remote.) I have connected it to a rooftop antenna in south Alexandria, Zip Code 22306.

I get good reception from most networks ABC (WJLA), CBS (WUSA), FOX (WTTG) and from Spanish language channels. The reception from NBC (WRC) (improved in December - January), from PBS (WETA), MHZ is good but intermittantly good.

Jet planes landing at National Airport and windy weather disrupt reception for those digital broadcast stations.


Everybody says that digital TV has a great picture (improved, sharp, clear). I agree that the picture is perfect, without ghosts or snow, when it is perfect. When digital TV is less than perfect - when it is intermittant - it is unviewable. More importantly to me, it is inaudible (cut out, clipped, muted, missing). When the audio is missing entirely, it is impossible to follow a story. (Rob - remove your W-key. hat do you have? ashingtonpost.com)

Dropped audio is a big DTV drawback, not an improvement.


See related http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/05/19/ST2008051902978.html

Posted by: bergedward | January 23, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

DROPPED AUDIO - AIRPLANE INTERFERENCE & LONGWIRE ANTENNAS

The reason for using an 'amplified' antenna arrangement, such as the one discussed by Rob for $60 from RCA, is to prevent audio clipping, or dropped audio with weak signals. Weak signals usually occur with distant reception, i.e. from Baltimore, etc with especially indoor [rabbit ear style antennas, especially on the ground floor, basements, or in lower areas.]

Airplanes [even people walking around near an antenna, or in an adjacent room] act as a reflector, so the main signal hitting the antenna gets mixed with the reflected signal and both signals are received at different times in MICROSECONDS, which screws with the phase and causes ghosting or even rolling with some nearby aircraft of the AM [video] signal on the screen. The larger the aircraft, the greater power reflected by it, but distance to the aircraft is important [otherwise every plane landing & taking off at a commercial airport would be an issue, though the altitude of the aircraft is also important.]

A longwire antenna can act as its own amplifier based on wavelength MULTIPLES of the length of the longwire, i.e., at TV frequencies, the traditional coat hanger simulates the [broken off] pull up antenna that comes with the TV set. Often extending or shortening [from full extension] of that antenna can improve the signal on VHF [traditional ch 2-13], where a halo [circular] antenna is shorter and usually works better for UHF [traditional ch 14-83 ?]

Thus a 60 foot longwire [which does NOT have to run straight for receiving] is about 20 times longer than the pull up antenna that comes with the TV [say 3 feet]. You will thus get a much stronger signal at the TV input from the longwire and therefore if it is either sloaping, like 1/2 of the UPSIDE DOWN letter "V" though any angel will do for the slope, or zig zagged, say around the attic or roof of a building, it should get signals from 360 degrees instead of merely 'broadside' to it. Now if a randomly zig zagged longwire is used to TRANSMIT, it will likely amplify 'harmonics' or multiples of the transmit frequency, thus causing radio/TV interference more so than an antenna properly cut to length for the frequency, but in receiving you don't have to worry about that -- any length and manner of erection will work, but some better than others.

Posted by: brucerealtor@gmail.com | January 23, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

USING THE 110 V PLUG ++++ GROUND CONNECTION ONLY ++++ AS A LONGWIRE RECEIVE ANTENNA.

Another trick that frequently works well for especially 'shortwave listeners' for foreign broadcast stations is to take a single piece of INSULATED [plastic covered] wire and connect it to the center screw of the plastic faceplate that is the cover for a 2 plug 110V power outlet. For this to work properly, the box behind the faceplate must be grounded [all are suppose to be grounded.'

Just loosen the faceplate screw and wrap the wire around it once and then screw it tight again. What this is really doing is using the grounding system of the 110 v plug receptacle as a 'grounded antenna.'

++++++ UNDER ZERO CIRCUMSTANCES ++++++, DO ++++ NOT ++++ STICK ANY WIRE INTO EITHER SIDE OF ++++ ANY ++++ PLUG SOCKET [WHERE THE 2 PRONGS GO.]

Posted by: brucerealtor@gmail.com | January 23, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

What a mess! I have Dish satellite,and two local channels. Dish is in contracts disputes with the NBC affiliate and I can only get NBC part of the time on a regular TV, nothing on Dish. CBS is still on Dish but has converted to DTV, and the convertor box desn't work. So we are back to family discussions on who gets to watch their favorite show since only one choice available on 3 tv's. All will go out of date when conversion takes place. I lost access to ABC when congress decided I had no right to purchase it through Dish. Because of other government malfeasance, we do not have the monies to go out and buy new TV's, when the current ones still work. I thought getting the dtv box would work. I want a refund! Did I tell you, I can get 250 channels, just not the major networks! I want access to my local network channels,for local news, not some affilliate a thousand miles away, which can be purchased separately. Of course the satellite bill includes channels I never watch, but all the cheaper packages seem to exclude our favorite channels. I just got spammed on internet that I can get 'free' tv online for one small purchase, the next page said a small monthly fee, then we all huddle around a coomputer monitor? at least with Dish we can have four rooms hooked up to watch in four locations. What has happened to America's favorite pasttime? In this time of national stress, why are you taking away the nation's pacifierjust when we need a little escapism from the tral and tribulations of the 'ordinary' day? The positive, family communication is revived and negotiation skills are practiced as families have to decide on what channel to watch each and every hour. Maybe, we will all relearn how to compromise and negotiate fair and just laws in Washington; and nations will sit down and decide to be at PEACE.

Posted by: LindaJoyAdams | January 23, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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