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A Field Guide To Digital TV

Frank Ahrens

Soon, thanks to the federal government, you will have to buy a digital television if you want to watch TV. (See the detailed explanation of this in the Comments section below.)

Congress has mandated a switchover from analog TV -- which is what TVs have been since their invention -- to digital TV. The idea is to save airwave spectrum -- the digital spectrum is smaller -- and be able to re-use the old analog TV spectrum for other things, like "Star Trek" transporters. Okay, not really. But for other stuff.

Which means your old analog TV will be kaput. Congress has approved a set-top box subsidy to aid in the transition, but digital TV is a foregone conclusion. Analog TV transmissions are supposed to stop by Feb. 17, 2009.

For most people, choosing a digital TV is as complicated as shopping for a rocket ship. And almost as expensive. Ba-da-BUM.

Today, the folks at the Consumer Electronics Association -- the trade group of electronics companies -- and product-review company CNet have added a digital TV tutorial to their step-by-step product Web site.

The name is pretty cumbersome -- -- but thankfully the site is not. It's an interactive guide that starts with showing you how to pick the right size TV for a room and ends by taking you to CNet product reviews. The site has been up for awhile, and already has guides to buying an mp3 player and a digital camera.

By Frank Ahrens  |  November 9, 2006; 4:15 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Re: "you will have to buy a digital television if you want to watch TV" - I'm confused:

I thought that the digital TV switchover would only affect people using antennas to receive broadcast signals (which is probably a tiny number of people). Therefore, anyone receiving cable or satellite TV would not need to change anything, right? But this post says that everyone must buy a digital TV. I'm sure CEA would love that, but I doubt many WaPo Online readers are using antennas.

Please clarify this, Mr. Ahrens...

Posted by: Analog in Arlington | November 9, 2006 6:14 PM

From the FCC's Web site:

"When full-power broadcast stations stop analog service, you still will be able to use your analog TV with a set-top converter box. Converter boxes for analog TVs receiving over-the-air broadcasts will be available in retail stores at that time. These boxes receive digital signals and convert them into analog format for display on your analog TV.

Beginning in 2008, your household may be able to obtain up to two coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of converter boxes. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has responsibility for administering the coupon program, and will issue rules regarding the coupons in the future. Additional information can be found at

If you are a cable or satellite subscriber, contact your provider about whether you will need a converter box for your analog TV."

Now this is me (Frank Ahrens) typing again:

Pretty soon, electronics manufacturers are going to stop making analog TVs.

Also, analog TVs will not be able to display the improved sound and picture quality of the digital broadcasts.

So, in theory, I suppose IF you have cable or satellite service and IF they will pump the digital signal into your analog TV (which probably will require you buying some sort of new set-top box), you could be right.

But for all practical purposes, to fully receive and enjoy digital TV at its best picture and sound quality, as well as the extra channels available, you're gonna need a digital TV.

I mean, you can still use a rotary telephone, I guess, but why on earth would you want to?

And good luck navigating those phone trees on a rotary phone.

Posted by: Frank Ahrens | November 9, 2006 6:39 PM

Ok fine, but I don't agree that analog is to digital as rotary is to touch tone. I already receive digital TV from Comcast, using a set-top box - and I have no complaints.

I don't consider TVs to be disposable, and I don't care enough about the "amazing quality" of digital to replace the five TVs in my house. I'd rather save my money. I wonder how much of the nation's credit card debt is attributable to buying the latest and greatest TV.

Posted by: Analog in Arlington | November 10, 2006 12:23 PM

Totally agree with Analog. If a push button phone cost $200, I might still be using rotary. Analog should work just fine for Fox News Channel, and the occasional ball game. Why pay two or more mortgage payments for digital?

Posted by: lrmc623 | November 11, 2006 5:31 PM

I am a college student studying telecommunications so I'll try and explain things in more detail for those of you who want it:
This is where you will need to spend money:
If you use bunny ears for TV, you will have to buy a digital box for each TV.
If you have digital cable, you already have one digital box, but you will have to buy a box for each TV.
If you have subscription satellite TV, you will not have to do anything because you already have a box for each TV.
BUT, if you buy a new tv from now on, go ahead and get a digital one. It will be cheaper than buying a analog tv and a box. Plus it will be less wires you have to deal with once the switchover comes.

Now that you know how it will affect you, let me clear a few things so that our government is not "the bad guy":
The government did not do this so that we would have to spend money to have the "amazing quality" of digital television. Our airwaves only hold so much, and with the exponential use of wireless devices we are running out of frequencies to use. The government did this so that we have more room in our airwaves. We can fit at least 10x as many digital channels in the same space that one analog channel fits. The "better quality" is just a bonus.
Let me try and explain how much space this will save. Think of it this way: How many TV stations did cable have in 1990? I think the most that would fit is 70something. Digital cable subscribers can now have 900+ channels through the same size cable line. So with digital, if you have a thing for European soccer leagues(FSC), there is a channel for it. If you have a thing for 1990s Nickelodean shows, there is a channel for it(GAS). If you have a thing for the more obscure college sports like gymnastics or boxing or lacrosse(CSTV or ESPNU), there is a channel for it.
The main reason for trying to save space is not giving us 1000 channels though, is so that we will also have more spectrum space that will be mainly used for cellphones and wireless internet capabilities, but some of the saved space will be allocated to other services(wireless alarm systems, military use).
The advantages: our cellphone service following 2009 should becomes alot better, and we will be able to do more with it. Let me give you an example of a very real possibility: Think if your on a business trip and your daughter has a play you can't make. Well ask the son(or wife/husband) to take their phone and hold it up for a live high quality video connection so you can watch the play through your phone.
This small price in TV conversion will be next to nothing in comparison to the possibilities this will open up. Plus digital boxes and TVs wont be as expensive because they will be in mass production before 2009.

Posted by: Phill | November 12, 2006 12:46 PM

Ahrens, there's a huge difference between saying "your old analog tv will be kaput" and saying "you can still use [an analog tv] but why on earth would you want to."

If you can't provide basic, accurate information about the transition (instead of hype), then you shouldn't be writing about it.

Posted by: Doh | November 14, 2006 3:27 PM

I see zune video converter software is released in

Posted by: dvdtozune | November 14, 2006 10:52 PM

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