5 On Your Side

Switch to All Digital TV Only A Year Away

Posted January 10, 2008 5:42 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2008 10:38 p.m. EST

Viewers are asking lots of questions ahead of the biggest change to television since color replaced black and white, set to happen in a little more than a year.

The Federal Communications Commission has ordered all TV stations to switch from broadcasting analog signals to broadcasting solely digital signals by Feb. 17, 2009.

Analog signals have been used to transmit TV programs since they hit the airwaves. Analog signals can be received by any TV set, including those with an outdoor antenna or set-top "rabbit ear" antennas.

Many TV stations also broadcast digital signals, as WRAL-TV has done since 1996. While any TV can pick up WRAL's analog signal on Channel 5, only those with a digital tuner or connected to digital cable or satellite service can pick up WRAL's digital channels.

The FCC regulation will end all such arrangements, which has many viewers wondering if they will still be able to pick up their favorite programs on their old sets.

Viewers with cable or satellite service will not have to change anything.

Those without such services or a digital TV, though, will need a digital-to-analog converter box, or a DTV box. The easy-to-install electronic device hooks up to an analog television set and an outdoor antenna or rabbit ears and converts the digital television signal into analog.

Each non-digital TV set will need a separate DTV converter box.

The boxes will go on sale in February in more than 14,000 retail stores, including Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, Sam's Club, Wal-Mart, Sears, RadioShack and Target.

DTV boxes will likely cost about $60, but each household can request up to two coupons, worth about $40 each, from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Consumers can apply for coupons via a Web site, a toll-free phone number or regular mail.

For more details, go to the DTV Converter Box Coupon Program Rules: http://www.ntia.doc.gov/dtvcoupon/rules.html.

Another option is to buy a DVR or DVD recorder with a digital tuner, which typically go for around $200. The devices route signals from antennas through the recorder and into the TV.

Viewers might also be left wondering how to tell if their set is a digital TV. To check for a digital turner, look for words like Integrated Digital Tuner, Digital Tuner Built In, DTV or HDTV.

If the TV is labeled Digital Monitor, HDTV Monitor or Digital Ready, it probably does not have a digital tuner and will need a converter box.

However, consumers do not need to buy a high-definition televisions to receive digital signals, because high-def is just one of the digital formats that TV stations can use.

Standard-definition digital TVs are less expensive than similar HD models, but high-def TVs provide the best picture quality.