Editorial: Prepare for television D-Day

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Start the countdown. Six months from now - Feb. 17, 2009 - will be the last day the television industry is allowed to broadcast in analog format. After that, signals will be broadcast digitally. The congressionally mandated conversion is the biggest thing to happen to TV since color.

It's also the latest step in society's long march from trusty old technology to the whiz-bang digital world. Soon, rabbit-eared TV sets will join film cameras, VHS tapes and eight tracks in the great junk heap in the sky - or at least a box in your uncle's basement. Such relics always maintain a following.

But unlike, say, vinyl records, the old TVs will not work the way they have for decades. When analog dies, it will be impossible to plug in an old model, fiddle with the antenna and watch broadcast channels - NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, etc. Consumers must choose how they wish to deal with digital.

First, though, let's clear up any confusion about why this is happening. The federal government has a done a poor job explaining the impetus behind the 2005 legislation that mandated the switch. Some may see it as an intrusion into the marketplace; after all, lawmakers never ordered us to retire our Walkmans in favor of iPods.

TV is different. The broadcast spectrum is public and thus regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, though the FCC auctions swaths of the spectrum to private interests. The switch to digital is supposed to free up precious spectrum space for a host of these - especially wireless phone companies - which have been lobbying for the privilege. So, too, have emergency responders - firefighters, police - whose communications will benefit from available analog. In that way, so will we.

Unfortunately, the feds also have done a poor job of explaining how it will affect TV viewers. Oh, tons of info is available online, at www.dtv2009.gov and other sites. But did it not occur to Congress that many of the estimated 19 million households still using rabbit ears and rooftop antennas aren't surfing the Web, either? Since this is a full-service editorial page, we'll explain.

One: How old is your TV? If you bought it recently, it may already have a digital receiver, so you needn't worry. Check the manufacturer's specifications (you saved that brochure, right?). Most TVs sold after 2006 have the capability to get a digital signal.

Two: No matter how ancient the set, people with cable or satellite service can sit tight. Providers are supposed to be handling the conversion on their end. In central Illinois, a Comcast Cable spokesman says subscribers - whether they have a digital cable box or the old-school, plug-into-the-wall cable - are taken care of, since Comcast can legally send an analog signal over its private network.

If you have questions, pester your provider mercilessly.

Three: So, you have an older TV and you don't get cable or satellite? You have choices: Buy a new television, get cable or satellite, or get a converter box that will take your set into the digital future. Getting the converter is by far the cheapest option, since Uncle Sam is offering a coupon that will knock $40 off the price of a box, which runs $50 to $60. Call (888) DTV-2009 to claim your taxpayer subsidy. But be warned - the signal may be weak, since digital is far more sensitive to disturbances.

Finally, there's option four: Don't watch TV. Instead, dig out those dusty vinyl records and reminisce about the good ol' days.

Peoria Journal Star