By this time in 2009, television as you know it will have changed. It's not that the quality of what you're watching will be any better or any worse (although you'd hope that TV shows will get better!). It's how you're getting those programs over the air that's going to change.
This TechTip looks at the coming changes to the way in which you get your over-the-air TV and what you can do to adapt.
What's going to happen?
The United States Senate has told broadcasters that they'll have to end their analog transmissions by midnight on February 17, 2009. Broadcasters, at least those with full-power television stations, will have to broadcast all programming in digital.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):
[D]igital is a more efficient transmission technology that allows broadcast stations to offer improved picture and sound quality, as well as offer more programming options for consumers through multiple broadcast streams (multicasting).
Notice I said full-power television stations earlier. Analog TV will still be available, mainly through local stations and ones in certain urban and rural areas which relay transmissions from larger broadcasters to smaller markets.
In case you're wondering what's going to happen to the analog frequencies that digital is replacing, they'll be used for emergency services and to provide expanded wireless and wireless broadband services.
Regardless, the move to all-digital is seen by many as a good thing. It will really improve your viewing experience.
What's the difference between analog and digital?
The biggest difference is quality. Digital looks and sounds better than analog. Here's a short comparison of how both of them work.
Analog TV, which is what those without satellite or cable grew up with, works by grabbing transmissions out of the air in the same way a radio grabs radio waves. This explains the need for an antenna outside your home or the so-called rabbit ear antennas on top of a set. An analog transmission starts as a set of moving images taken by a video camera at about 30 frames per second. The camera converts the images into a set of pixels, and gives each of those pixels a color and a level of intensity ranging from dim to bright.
The pixels are combined into horizontal and vertical rows that an analog TV can interpret, and a sound signal is added. The video and sound are then converted to radio waves of specific frequencies (depending on the channels you're watching) and sent over the air where your TV can pick them up using an antenna.
Analog TV works, but it's not great (as you probably know) and it's far from efficient. The resolution is nothing to write home about, and the signal itself can suffer from interference -- the all-too-familiar snow and static.
Digital TV (sometimes called DTV), on the other hand, is far more efficient and the quality is higher. Whereas analog TV is made up of pixels, digital TV is made up of packets of compressed data -- if you've watched YouTube or Hulu (or any other online video), then you've seen digital video in action. But unlike many online videos, digital TV isn't fuzzy or distorted. The compression is unobtrusive but has an interesting side effect.
Broadcasters can pack more information and more image and sound resolution into a digital transmission than into an analog one. So much so, that a digital broadcast can contain what are called subchannels. Each subchannel can carry a different program without using additional bandwidth. That's the multicasting that the FCC mentioned earlier. On top of that, digital transmissions aren't affected by interference -- say goodbye to snow!
How is this change going to affect me?
In two ways. First, the good way. The programs that you watch will have clearer, sharper video and crisper audio. They'll be about on par with the audio and visual quality of cable or satellite TV. Best of all, you won't need to pay the high prices of cable or satellite TV services. Networks have been broadcasting their programs in digital for the last couple of years, in parallel with their analog broadcasts.
The bad way: if you have an older analog TV, you won't be able to pick up over-the-air digital transmissions. Essentially, your TV will be dark when you turn it on after the February, 2009 deadline.
What can I do?
While your old set will not be able to pick up over-the-air TV, it won't be a useless pile of electronics sitting in your living room. You'll still be able to use it to watch cable and satellite TV, as well as to hook your DVD player or VCR into it. You should really determine whether or not your TV has a digital tuner.
If you're not sure whether or not your TV is digital ready, check the back of the set. Newer digital-capable TVs -- including all sets that have been sold since March 1, 2008 -- often have a sticker with wording like Built in digital tuner or DTV ready. If you don't see the sticker, or are still not 100% certain then check the manufacturer's Web site for the model number of your TV.
If you have an older analog set have two options. First, you can go out and buy a new digital television. A new set can set you back anywhere from about $450 to $1,200 or more. If that's more than you can afford, then you might want to go with option 2: get a converter box.
A converter box is a gadget that hooks into your analog TV and converts the digital signal into a format that your old TV can understand. Converter boxes are a lot cheaper than a new digital TV -- they cost anywhere from $50 to $75 dollars. While you won't get the same experience that you would with a television with a built-in digital tuner, the picture and sound quality will be superior to old school analog broadcasts.
Since the government got you into this, it's helping you out with the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. Between now and March 31, 2009, you can apply for two coupons worth $40 that will help defray the costs of the digital converters. The coupon program is being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and you can find out more at their Web site devoted to the program (http://www.dtv.gov). There's also a good FAQ at the site which should answer any of your questions.
And what about those analog transmissions that I mentioned earlier in this TechTip? Well, there could be a problem with some converter boxes. Certain models don't allow analog transmissions to flow through to a TV. If you're in an area that has both digital and analog signals, and want to view both types of programming, ensure that the converter box you buy has analog pass through capability.
Whether you like it or not, the way in which you get your over-the-air TV will be changing. And soon. If you're an avid TV watcher, this is definitely a good thing. You'll be able to watch programs with better quality audio and video, and won't have to worry about paying extra for cable or satellite. Even if you have to buy a converter box, the government's coupon program will help defray your costs -- you'll be getting higher-quality TV for a low price.