For complete access
Get full access to Ratings and recommendations on appliances, cars & trucks, electronic gear, and much more. Subscribe today to ConsumerReports.org.
February 2008
send to a friend printable version
How to survive the digital TV transition
The impending switch to all-digital broadcast TV will be a step forward, but it could be bumpy for many

Over the next year or so, you'll be hearing a lot about the digital TV transition. Here's what you need to know: On Feb. 17, 2009, broadcasters must shut down their analog systems and transmit only digital TV signals to comply with the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act.

While that sounds cataclysmic, the change will affect only the way free TV will be broadcast over the air, to a rooftop or indoor antenna. All TVs (no matter what type) connected to cable, satellite, or one of the new telephone company fiber-optic services should continue to function (though you might have to get a set-top box for cable; see below).

A TV connected to an antenna might or might not work after Feb. 17, 2009. That depends on the type of TV.


Which TVs will still work with an over-the-air antenna?

A TV with a built-in digital tuner (called an ATSC tuner) will be able to get free over-the-air digital programming, with no action on your part. Your TV probably has a digital tuner if it falls into one of the following categories:

  • It's a big-screen, high-definition TV bought within the last few years. The government has required sets with screens 35 inches and larger to have a digital tuner since July 2005, and sets 25 inches and larger since March 2006. Those sets are sometimes called integrated HDTVs.

  • It's a new TV purchased this year. Since March of this year, all new TVs regardless of size have been required to have a digital tuner. Most TVs bought within the last few months should be OK, whether they're high-definition sets or the new digital standard-definition TVs. (Retailers are allowed to sell off their existing inventory of analog TVs that do not have a digital tuner. They should be clearly marked as analog sets, but ask the salesperson to be sure.)


Which TVs will no longer work with an over-the-air antenna?

A TV that has only an analog tuner, called an NTSC tuner, will not be able to get free over-the-air digital programming. Your TV does not have a digital tuner if it is one of the following:

  • An older picture-tube TV that is not a high-definition set.

  • An HD-ready TV purchased several years ago.

  • A new type of set, called a monitor, that has no built-in tuner of any kind.

(If you're unsure as to whether or not your TV contains a digital tuner, consult the product manual or call the manufacturer's customer service line.)


How can you make those TVs work?

To use any of those TVs to get free TV via antenna, you will have to attach an external device that contains a digital ATSC tuner. (Keep that in mind if, at some point, you disconnect cable or satellite from an older set to use it in your bedroom or basement with an antenna connection.) There are two ways to do this:

  • You can buy a digital converter box that will accept the digital feed from the antenna and convert it into analog signals your TV can accept. That would enable you to receive digital broadcasts, but they will be converted to lower-quality analog signals—even if your TV is an HD-ready set or an HD monitor. Those converters are starting to show up in stores now, at costs ranging from $40 to $70. Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, RadioShack, Sam's Club, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart are among the retailers that will be offering the boxes and participating in a government coupon program to defray the cost (see below).

  • You can also buy a new VCR, DVD recorder, or digital hard-disk recorder (sometimes called a DVR) that contains a digital tuner and route signals from the antenna through that device to your TV. A number of such recorders are already available from various brands, many selling in the $200 range. As with TVs, verify with a salesperson that the model you've selected contains an ATSC tuner. You would have to keep the recorder turned on in order to watch TV. An HD-ready set or HD monitor would then be able to display HD, but a standard-definition set would downgrade the signal to analog quality.


Other options for getting TV programming

Alternatively, you could use one of those TVs with cable, satellite, or telephone company video service. Plans start at about $15 to $20 a month for the most basic level of programming, and a digital set-top box typically rents for about $5 to $10 a month.

Satellite and phone company TV are already all-digital, so subscribers won't have to make any changes. TVs connected to those services should continue to function as they do now.

Cable companies must continue to provide service to analog TVs at least through 2012. But if the cable is plugged directly into an analog set, you might have to get a set-top box at some point to continue receiving programming. Contact your cable company to find out if they're planning to switch to all-digital service during that time and whether you'll have to pay for a box.


FEDERAL COUPONS MIGHT HELP U.S. CONSUMERS

Because the federal government is requiring the transition, Uncle Sam will foot part of the bill for the purchase of digital converter boxes. Households with analog TVs connected to an antenna are eligible to receive two $40 coupons to buy two converter boxes (two coupons cannot be combined to purchase one box). Consumers must request the coupons from Jan. 1, 2008 through March 31, 2009. The coupons will expire three months after they're issued. Coupons will be available on a first-come, first-served basis until federal funding is exhausted.

Federal legislation has allocated up to $1.5 billion to this program. Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, finds little to applaud in this plan, which senior policy analyst Jeannine Kenney describes as "under funded" and "intentionally difficult for consumers to use." "Unless Congress revisits the structure and funding of the coupon program," she said, "the digital transition will be not just an annoyance to consumers, it will be a financial burden as well, undermining the likelihood that the 2009 transition deadline will be met."

For more information on the coupon program, visit the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's web site for the TV converter box coupon program: www.dtv2009.gov. You can phone in questions about DTV to the FCC's toll-free Consumer Center at 888-CALL-FCC (888-225-5322). Other useful online resources: www.dtvtransition.org, a site sponsored by the Digital TV Transition Coalition, a diverse group of TV and consumer electronics industry associations dedicated to educating consumers, and the official Web site of the National Association of Broadcasters' digital television (DTV) transition campaign. You can also check out www.HearUsNow.org, a consumer advocacy Web site managed by Consumers Union for public policy issues such as the transition to digital TV.


ANTENNAS: YOUR LINK TO FREE DTV

The impending transition from analog to digital for local broadcasts has put a whole new spin on over-the-air reception, which lost favor when cable and satellite became widely available. Here's what you need to know about using an antenna to get digital TV broadcasts.

More channels, better quality. Digital over-the-air broadcasts can provide very high-quality picture and sound—including high-definition programming and surround sound—free of charge. You might even get more channels than you did with analog broadcasts, because many networks broadcast several subchannels with different programming than the main station. (You won't pull in cable- and satellite-only stations such as ESPN and CNN.)

What you'll get. The number of stations you can receive digitally, and whether you can receive them, will vary depending on your locale. To find out about digital TV stations in your area, visit http://www.fcc.gov/mb/video/files/dtvonair.html.You'll have the best shot at receiving digital transmissions if there's a clear path to a station's transmitter. Tall buildings, mountains, or trees can block the signal. To gauge the potential strength of the HD signal in your area, check out AntennaWeb.

Antenna choices. Rabbit ears and indoor antennas might work, but a larger roof-mounted antenna is generally more effective at pulling in signals. Larger antennas can also be mounted in attics. You'll find antenna advice at the AntennaWeb. Web site and the HDTV Antenna Labs Web site, an enthusiast site dedicated to reviews of DTV antennas and technical articles.

Installation options. Although professional antenna installation was once a common service, finding an installer today might not be as easy as finding someone to wire a home computer network. None of the major electronics chains our reporter called (BestBuy, Circuit City, and Sears) install outdoor antennas.

AntennasDirect provides a listing of resellers and installers around the country. The do-it-yourselfer can download a useful guide on installing an outdoor TV antenna. You might also find a professional antenna installer in your area on the Homeblue Contractor Network site, or at Craigslist.