Television officially enters the 21st century Feb. 17, when the much-heralded "digital transition" takes place. On that day, broadcast stations - those one can view without subscribing to cable or satellite systems - will stop transmitting old-fashioned analog signals and start sending out their programming digitally.
What does that mean?
A better, clearer picture, experts say, and more stations.
That's the good news.
The bad news is, unless you've prepared yourself and your home's TVs properly, come Feb. 17, you may not be watching any TV at all. If your sets are attached to a cable or satellite system, however, you should be fine, regardless of the age of the TV.
Why are we doing this?
In 1996, Congress ordered that all broadcast television stations be given an extra channel to receive a separate digital signal. It later ordered that commercial analog broadcasts cease as of Feb. 17, 2009. According to the Federal Communications Commission, all stations are now broadcasting in both analog and digital. Once commercial analog broadcasts cease, those frequencies will be reserved for governmental and emergency transmissions. Some of the analog frequencies have been auctioned for use by the business sector.
What are the advantages of digital over analog?
"Better pictures and sound, plus the opportunity to get other channels that you currently cannot get," says Jordan Wertlieb, WBAL-TV president and general manager. "We offer a 24-hour weather channel only on the digital spectrum. At MPT, they offer a Spanish-language channel. Plus, there are constant reinventions and enhancements being made to [digital]. Probably the next step will be some sort of interaction between the television and the computer."
What's the difference between digital and analog?
"Analog is based on the same FM and AM radio transmissions that we've been using since the 1940s," says Rick Seaby, director of broadcast operations and engineering at WJZ-TV. "All that time, we've been using an AM signal for the picture, FM for the audio. And it is susceptible to a lot of the vagaries and interferences and slight differences of any analog transmission format - the snow, the audio interference, the wavy lines and bad picture.
"The digital transmission is very much like high-speed Internet, almost. ... It's extremely clear. It can carry more information, and keep that information intact and clear for a further distance than the analog signals."
How can we tell if our TV sets can receive the digital broadcast signal?
Any set purchased since March 1, 2007, must contain a digital tuner - unless specifically labeled otherwise (warnings that analog-only sets would soon become obsolete were supposed to have been displayed "prominently" by retailers, according to the FCC). Look on your set or in the owner's manual for the words "Integrated Digital Tuner," "Digital Tuner Built-In," "Digital Receiver," "Digital Tuner," "DTV," "ASTC" or "HDTV." Find any of those, and your set should be OK.
If the set is labeled "Digital Monitor," "HDTV Monitor," "Digital Ready" or "HDTV Ready," it probably does not contain a digital tuner, and you'll need a converter box if the set is not on cable or satellite. If you have questions about specific models, it would be best to call the manufacturer.
How can I tell if my set is receiving a digital signal?
Turn it on and turn to one of the local broadcast channels - WJZ, for instance. If you can get not only WJZ, but also a second adjacent station that provides 24-hour weather, then you've got a digital tuner in your set. In another example of an adjacent digital station, WBFF-TV Fox 45 announced last week that its WBFF-DT 45.2 will launch as a "This TV" affiliate Jan. 12. It will offer viewers movies from the MGM library as well as some classic sitcoms and children's entertainment programming.
"With the FCC cutting off analog transmissions on Feb. 17, 2009, this is the perfect time to give our viewers another choice is excellent programming for free," said William Fanshawe, group manager for Sinclair Broadcasting's WBFF and WNUV.
Where can I get a converter box? And how much are they?
Boxes can be purchased at most electronics stores (Best Buy or Radio Shack, for example) and at many general retail stores, such as Wal-Mart or Target. The boxes generally cost from $40 to $70.
Can I get a coupon to help offset the cost?
Government-sponsored coupons, good for $40 off the price of a converter box, can be obtained by going to dtv2009.com or by calling 888-388-2009 (for TTY, 877-530-2634). Each household is eligible for two coupons. Caution: The coupons expire in 90 days, so don't dawdle too long before using them. Also, it can take six weeks to eight weeks for them to arrive in the mail, so if you haven't gotten one yet, get on it.
What happens to our old sets if we don't get a converter box?
Come Feb. 17, when broadcast stations stop sending out an analog signal, you'll get nothing but snow on your TV. Are digital and high-definition the same thing?
No. as of Feb. 17, all stations will be broadcasting in standard-definition digital, but only some will be broadcasting in HD. While digital transmission should improve picture and sound quality, HD makes the picture brighter still and the sound more pure. "HDTV gives approximately five times the detail as standard definition," Fanshawe says. "But even standard definition, which is comparable to DVD quality, is much better than the best analog signal."
If you want to watch in HD, make sure your TV set is HD-compatible.
Although all Baltimore stations broadcast in HD, not all can broadcast their local programming - shows that originate in their studios - in HD. WBFF and WNUV have been producing HD programming since June, while WJZ and WBAL are expected to join the ranks sometime next year. WMAR has no plans to do local programming in HD.
How many people in the region might be unprepared?
About 7 percent of homes in the Baltimore area are unprepared for the digital conversion, WBAL's Wertlieb says. That is, about 70,000 homes are not connected to cable or satellite systems or do not have digital TVs or have not yet obtained either converter boxes or coupons that can be used to purchase converter boxes.
When the local stations ran a test of their digital transmitters Dec. 16 and provided viewers with a number to call if their sets were not yet able to receive the digital signal, about 2,200 calls came in.
Who pays for the conversion? And will it cost me anything?
Other than a converter box (which, with a coupon, could be free or close to it), the digital conversion won't cost you anything directly. Broadcast stations, on the other hand, have had to shell out between $3 million and $4 million for new and upgraded equipment, according to Wertlieb.
Might viewers without cable or satellite still have reception issues with digital TV?
Yes. Stations that send out a digital signal are still dependent on the power of the transmitter and your location, which means that if you had trouble tuning-in some stations before the conversion, you may still have trouble afterward. The situation may even get worse; whereas analog transmissions allowed viewers who lived far away to tune in, but maybe get only a snowy picture, digital is an either-or proposition - either you get the signal, or you don't. There's no such thing as a snowy picture with digital.
However, the digital signal should go farther than the analog signal. And some stations with weak signals have taken the opportunity to boost their power. MPT, says spokesman Mike Golden, has increased power on its transmitter in Frederick, recently received FCC approval to boost the power of its Baltimore transmitter, and has asked for permission to upgrade its transmitter in Annapolis.
Check the FCC Web site at www.dtv.gov/consumercorner.html.