Your Daily Phil

The DTV transition: Are you ready?

Posted by lozenp on April 4, 2008

It’s less than a year away and confusion runs rampant. Some of the big box retailers aren’t up-to-speed yet and false information is pouring out as consumers, worried they will wake up on Feb. 17, 2009 to a blank TV, scramble to make sure their TV will still work.

On that date, U.S. broadcast TV will switch from its current analog broadcast system to a digital one. This will free up the current analog spectrum (the airwaves currently sending broadcast TV over the air) to be used by other companies and emergency services such as police and fire. When that happens, people with older TVs who rely on over the air (OTA) antennas (also known as rabbit ears) to get their TV signal will no longer be able to get those signals without a converter box. Those with newer TVs that have digital (ATSC) tuners or people who subscribe to cable or satellite service will not be affected, for the most part.

The latest statistics indicate about 117 million TV sets get their TV via OTA using antennas, while about half the households in the U.S. have a digital TV already.

What does all this mean to you? I’ll try to answer that question here in the simplest terms possible. There are a ton of sites out there doing this, so I’m not breaking any ground here. For the most part, however, those sites are going into a lot of detail that might be too much for some people. And the official site – while it’s full of info – is a government site, so that’s all you need to know about that. I’ll provide links to some of the better sites I’ve seen at the end of this if you want to learn more.

Here’s the quick overview to get yourself ready, read a bit more info further down:

  1. If you use cable or satellite, stop here, there’s nothing you need to do. Exception: If you have cable without a set-top box as your only TV, it would be worth calling your cable co. to ensure you’ll be ok.
  2. If you use an OTA antenna, determine how old your TV is and if it has a digital (ATSC) tuner. Generally 4:3 TV will not, while 16:9 will, though this is not always true.
  3. If you have a TV without a digital tuner, apply for the $40 government coupon for a converter box.
  4. Buy the box when you get the coupon, hook it up between your antenna and your TV, and continue to enjoy Lost on Thursday nights.

Still have questions, read on:

Is my TV new enough?
tvsa.jpgThe general rule of thumb is, if your TV is more square (called a 4:3 aspect ratio) than rectangle (16:9, also called widescreen) than you likely will need a converter box (see converter box section below) to continue to get OTA signals via antenna. If you have a 16:9 TV, you need to check to make sure it has a digital tuner. Look in the manual for the words digital tuner or the term ATSC. If you see one of those terms, you’re all set. It’s possible some 4:3 TVs will have digital tuners, so check if your TV was bought in the last five years.

Do I need a new TV?
This is the place where the most confusion exists. Unscrupulous retailers are talking customers into buying expensive new HDTVs when the consumer really only needed a $50 converter box.

Under no circumstance do you have to get a new TV. A converter box will work for almost any TV that currently gets OTA signals. Certainly you can buy a new TV if you want to, and if you have an older TV and want to be able to get high def (HD) signals, you will need a new TV. But make no mistake; the DTV transition is not forcing you to buy a new TV.

Will I get high def (HD) TV if I get a converter box, or after Feb. 17, 2009?
Another area of confusion, this is not the HDTV transition and has nothing at all to do with high definition TV. It’s the DTV (digital TV) transition. If you currently get HD, then you will still have HD after Feb. 17. If you currently don’t have HD, then most likely you still won’t after Feb. 17, although you might notice a slightly improved picture. It is possible to get HD using an OTA antenna if you have a TV with a digital tuner, but that’s another topic.

I have cable or satellite, will I be affected?
Cable subscribers with set-top boxes and all satellite subscribers will not have to do anything to continue to receive TV. Further, most cable companies have said that even those with older TVs and who don’t use a cable box will still be ok. That being said, if you’re a cable subscriber with an older TV and no cable box as your only source of TV, I would call your cable company to ensure your TV will still work on February 17.

What networks does this involve?
There are some exceptions to the change-over, such as locally-run stations on lower-powered transmitters, but all the major networks are involved. That means ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, The CW, PBS, and My Network TV, and in turn the local stations broadcasting those channels, such as WDIV in Detroit, will all stop analog broadcasts.

What’s this converter box everyone’s talking about?
The converter box will take the digital signal and turn it into an analog one for older TVs. It goes between your antenna and your TV. The majority of them cost about $50 and you can find them at most electronics retailers. There’s also a government program that allows households to get up to two $40 coupons to be used toward a converter. Visit to apply for the coupons. You’ve got until March 31, 2009 to apply for a coupon. I’ve already got mine at home.

Will I still get all my channels?
Reports are beginning to circulate that the digital signals being sent out will not be able to travel as far as the analog ones. This means that people in outlying areas, or those who are accustomed to getting TV from two different cities (like I do with Toledo and Detroit) might not be able to get the same amount of channels after the switch.


So there you have it. If you want further info check out:

Engadget’s Guide –

The Government’s sites –,

DTV Answers –



One Response to “The DTV transition: Are you ready?”

  1. amy said

    why do we need one? isn’t our tv new enough?

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