More questions about the switch to digital TV

January 27, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Turns out that getting ready for the big digital transition, set (for now) to go off three weeks from today, involves more than simply updating your TV, buying a converter box or making sure your cable or satellite subscriptions are up-to-date.

Consumers also have to contend with old VCRs, problematic reception and cable companies whose schedules don't quite jibe with everyone else's.

For months now, broadcast TV stations have been heralding the changeover from analog to digital, through commercial spots, news segments, even special programs like the one that aired last night on Maryland Public Television. Notices in post offices and other government offices have been telling people what they need to do to be ready for Feb. 17. There have been two tests of the digital broadcast system, on Dec. 17 and Jan. 15, during which TV owners could see if their sets were ready for the transition.

A handful of additional questions have come up, however, including:

What about my old VCRs or DVD players? Will they be affected?

Yes, if you use them to tune your TV and don't have a cable or satellite connection (that is, you use the channel selector on the VCR or DVD player rather than the TV). The same thing applies to them as applies to your television: If the devices don't have a digital tuner and aren't connected to a converter box, they won't be any good after Feb. 17.

Of course, you'd still be able to use your older machines to watch DVDs or VCRs. You just won't be able to pick up the broadcast TV signal with them.

I'm connected to a cable system, but when the broadcast stations ran their tests, a message appeared on my TV screen telling me I wasn't ready for the transition. What gives?

Here's betting you live in northern Anne Arundel and have Broadstripe as your cable provider. If, like Broadstripe, your cable company is not yet set up to receive the digital signal from the broadcast stations, you're going to fail the test. But Broadstripe spokesman Frank Scotello promises, "Once Feb. 17 comes, we will be all prepared."

Once the changeover is made from analog to digital, will I receive the same stations I've always received?

Maybe. Maybe not. It's possible the digital signal may not get through to the same areas the analog signal did; you may have to align your indoor or outdoor antennae differently to get the best reception. And people who live on the other side of a mountain from their broadcast stations' transmission towers, or who live deep down in a valley and have always had trouble tuning in their TV stations, may have the same troubles.

In addition, because digital reception is an all-or-nothing affair - either you receive the signal or you don't - you may find that some stations whose analog signals came in weakly may not come in at all once the transition is made. The truth is, no one knows exactly what will happen. Says WBAL-TV President and General Manager Jordan Wertlieb, "I doubt anyone has a real handle on what the reception issues are until the conversion is complete."

Will the battery-powered portable TV I take with me to Ravens games still work?

Not unless it's new enough to have a digital tuner, or it's hooked up to a converter box. And since converter boxes have to be plugged into a wall outlet, those old TVs' days of being portable may soon be over. Battery-powered converter boxes are available, but lugging one around could prove more trouble than it's worth.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

On Feb. 17, broadcast television stations throughout the U.S. - that is, those that can be picked up by your television without the use of a cable or satellite connection - will switch their transmissions from analog to digital signals. Households with their TVs connected to satellite or cable should have nothing to worry about, and should immediately begin reaping the promised benefits of digital transmission: more channels and a clearer, sharper picture.

Households dependent on indoor or outdoor antennae for their TV reception will need to take action if they want to continue viewing their local broadcast stations - in Baltimore, Channels 2 (ABC), 11 (NBC), 13 (CBS), 24 (MNT), 45 (Fox), 54 (CW) and 22 and 67 (MPT). They can make sure their TVs are equipped with digital tuners. Or they can purchase a digital converter box - available in most electronics and big-box stores for $40 to $70 - for each of their TVs.

Government-issued coupons worth $40 toward the purchase of a converter box were recently halted after the value of the coupons in circulation matched the program's budget. The Obama administration has asked that the Feb. 17 transition be postponed until more coupons can be made available, but for now, the date remains unchanged.

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