SciTechBlog   « Back to Blog Main
January 30, 2009

DTV: What's all the fuss about?

Posted: 02:21 PM ET

If your TV looks like this, pay attention!

So, February 17 is looming. You know, the date when our boring old analog signals are supposed to turn into 1s and 0s and go digital. You know what I’m talking about, right? You’ve seen the commercials all over the TV, I know you have. Right?

Still clueless? You’re not alone.

Digital basically means that: digital vs. an analog signal. Think cassette vs. CD. It doesn’t mean HD. Also, it’s over the air only, so if you have cable you don't have to worry about it. (Don't listen if some undereducated or shifty customer-service rep uses the digital TV switchover as an excuse to badger you into buying an HD set-top box.)

If you have cable or satellite TV or already have a set-top box (unfortunately, Tivo’s don’t always count – check here for more info), you’re covered. There's no need to go out and get anything. Also, if your TV is relatively new it's digital-ready, so you’re automatically covered.

So who needs to worry? People who get their TV signals off any sort of antenna, bunny ears or aerial, should pay attention. You’re the folks this switchover is aimed at. If your TV isn’t equipped with a digital tuner (ATSC), you'll need a converter box.

Here’s the next problem: The program that was giving out coupons for these boxes? They’re out of money. I suspect this is because people had no clue whether they needed a box or not and got one, “just in case.” (I know some people out there who claim to be tech-savvy and did exactly that.)

All this confusion has lead President Obama to ask Congress to delay the switchover until June, which some say will lead to even more confusion. The House disagreed, saying the switchover should take place in February as scheduled. Just to muddy the waters even more, there are plans for another House vote on the matter next week.

Still confused?? If so, you’re not alone. And if this didn’t help, here are some handy tools to help you figure it out:

FCC’s fact page on DTV – FCC's tranisition Web site
CNET explains the switchover

If you've found a handy widget you think explains all this better, please feel free to post it in the comments.

- Cody McCloy,

Posted by:
Filed under: television

Share this on:
KDH   January 30th, 2009 4:00 pm ET

Just one question, why does the government have to pay for digital boxes? I am amazed that no one balked at $1.5 Billion for this program. I guess the government just loves to give away our money.

bob   January 30th, 2009 5:15 pm ET

What's so hard to get?

For 99.9% of people it breaks down like this. If you have rabbit ears you'll need a box otherwise you won't.

Why is this so hard?

S Callahan   January 30th, 2009 5:37 pm ET

Sadly, there are many elderly -adults -who are not in the position to purchase another television, or understand the changes that are forthcoming, and will be left without this communication..which for some is their only contact with the outside world. As well, many in the rural area where it is not receptive to 'cable' or other means will also be left out.

cmccloy   January 30th, 2009 5:48 pm ET

The reason the government is paying is because congress mandated the switch to digital (see the top question on AND there is a mandate that new transmissions be backward compatible with older televisions (hence the need for a set top converter). The government will also making money of the sale of new broadcast licenses that will be available due to the larger number of channels DTV will provide.

Franko   January 30th, 2009 6:15 pm ET

Why break it ? (so the lobbyists can make bigger bonuses)
Keep, at least, broadcast VHF Channels 2-13
And cable UHF frequencies for the poor

Martin   January 30th, 2009 9:37 pm ET

This switchover driven less by technical considerations and more by commercial ones and unfortunately - as has happened elsewhere - the viewers will be the losers. It remains to be seen how TV will work but attempts at switching to digital radio have been a disaster (both in the US and overseas) because commercial considerations trumped practicality - people were sold on "crystal clear reception", "many channels" and so on and what they got was performance that was well below the legacy systems.

The irony in all this is that the spectrum space that's been snapped up by AT&T and others is for enhanced mobile services which increasing is "watching TV on your mobile phone". A further irony is that modern communications technologies don't require radios that you 'tune' like in the old days - you just don't need exclusive use of a band to communicate reliably these days. So we're killing off an obsolete technology to replace it by what is effectively a bunch of obsolete technologies - way to go, folks!

Franko   January 31st, 2009 12:00 am ET

Martin is correct
Break a technology, replace with another, soon to be broken
Each break cycle funnels excessive profits to the controllers

Hedy Lamarr invented frequency-hopped spread spectrum
Able to hide tansmissions from the enemy
AT&T evil dumkoffs, advising the President, to funnel Tax Dollars ?

mark   January 31st, 2009 2:40 am ET

When will people understand the American goverment does not care what you think or about you and most the people you vote into office are just trying to loot as much as they can in the short time they have.

Deal with it!

Paul D   January 31st, 2009 7:19 am ET

You can still use the plain old rabbit ears to recieve the digital signal so don't throw them away! Just plug it into theback of the new converter box and plug the box into the TV. It is all still free, over the air programing so you still don't need a flat screen TV, cable or satellite.

DennyW   January 31st, 2009 10:42 am ET

From my experience over the past 8 weeks, getting ready for the transition, entirely too little discussion and emphasis has been placed on the topic of antennas. You are going to need one, a good one, and "amplified rabbit ears" are not going to work for very many people if they are at any distance at all from the transmitters. And retail staffs are totally ignorant on the subject of DTV, let alone antennas. The good news is that there are lots of helpful articles on the Internet, including at least 3 that detail how to construct your own high-gain antenna. Search Google for "build your own UHF TV antenna" for a good start. Often you can place this in your attic. Spend $ 35 or so on an amplifier (Walmart) and you will be in good stead. I pull 16 stations, including one with a steady signal at a distance of 76.5 miles to the transmitter with such a setup. The antenna is highly directional, and even 2 degrees change in direction can lose the signal. It's tricky, but be patient. You can do it!

JimZ1   January 31st, 2009 12:07 pm ET

The transition should be delayed, not because of a lack of converter boxes, but because many properly prepared people will be frozen out (excuse the pun) of their favorite TV stations come February 17th. This is because the FCC, under the Bush Administration, eliminated the requirement for television stations to supply a digital signal that matches their current analog signal. Because of this, people in fringe reception areas will probably get a poor digital signal or no signal at all. Delay the transition until it can be done correctly. Too bad that the Bush Administration wasted 8 years of this process.

Trip   January 31st, 2009 2:01 pm ET

Hey guys, read a book that deals with technology and innovation rather than conspiracies.

Phil   January 31st, 2009 4:05 pm ET

Trip, the point I raised is technological: the difference in signal propogation between analog and digital systems. Signal strength in areas distant from a transmission source is not strong enough to provide reception the way the old analog (low quality but viewable)signal would.

Simply installing a converter box will not necessarily enable viewers to receive their old channels (networks/stations). For that matter, buying a new digital TV won't either. It seems the only alternatives would be cable TV service (if available) or satelite service, both of which represent on-going costs to the consumer and profit for the provider.

Franky   January 31st, 2009 9:24 pm ET

You know, i really don't know the full numbers regarding who may need it or not but my question you guys really think all 200 million people are gonna "change?" I mean, I do believe people are already doing and a pretty good estimate on who has cable or satellite T.V but for the rest America, I don't know, is like playing 52 pick up, either someone is gonna pick it up or not. And since the program is out of money, you know more dough is gonna be put...probably more than before.

You know, I guess people do their thang, so probably I'm off, who knows. I just find it hard to believe that everybody has already got in the action because if they did, the cards wouldn't have been shown...

Smarty McSmarterson   January 31st, 2009 10:14 pm ET

The DTV converter coupon program was funded by the monies received from the auction to sell spectrum from channels 60-69. This is not "taxpayer" money per se. The coupons also have a 90-day expiration and the backlog is partly created by money from unused cards waiting to be freed up from expiration. A lot of people ordered cards but never used them. Another problem is millions of people waited to the very last second and jammed the system with requests.

Secondly, the government received around $10 billion MORE from the auction than what was projected. Maybe instead of delaying the inevitable and punishing TV stations that are budgeting the death of their analog transmitters, the feds could use some of the extra proceeds to fund an expanded coupon program. But do note that the coupon program also had a provision of "while supplies last". The fault needs to be placed on the people who failed to understand the system.

The same uneducated people who continue to proclaim the coupon program being funded by the taxpayer are likely the same ignorant fools who have been ignoring the constant PSAa, banner crawls, soft DTV cutoff tests and every other form of warning that DTV is coming 2/17.

If you're unprepared now, you will be unprepared in June. If you're really clueless that analog TV is dead very soon then you deserve to be without television anyway.

Franko   February 1st, 2009 2:19 am ET

“Rural Electrification Act of 1936, the Electric Programs make direct loans and loan guarantees to electric utilities to serve customers in rural areas” - To be connected, farm customers were required to dismantle their wind turbines

History Rhymes, even in Television Internet Times

lee s   February 1st, 2009 12:04 pm ET

Why does everyone in this country ( govt included) act like watching tv is some sort of crazy modern manifest destiny, People, you really have no right to syphon billions of dollars from our already struggling economy so you and your family can watch CSI or whatever god awful programming they are showing, fi you feel like you NEED tv and cannot possibly live without it then spring for thr converter box on your own, no one with cable or sattelite ever asked the govt to help pay for their monthly bill. The govt needs to wise up and get their priorities straight we are spending how much again so the idiot box can continue to weaken the already soft and mushy mind of the avg american citizen

Tony   February 1st, 2009 1:38 pm ET

I got a converter box only to find that I live too far away to receive any digital signals at all. Right now I can receive five analog signals just fine. This switch to digital television will completely eliminate my ability to watch television unless I consent to pay a cable or satellite provider.

As a consumer and owner of the public airwaves it doesn't appear that I'll benefit from this initiative. The economy and employment situations being what they are right now, a subscription to pay television is not in my budget.

One of the advertised benefits of switching to digital TV for consumers is that picture clarity will increase. Since some people who previously were served by television will no longer be served, clearly there are some problems with the switch-over, at least from a consumer standpoint.

If I were a cable TV or satellite TV company, the picture would be equally clear: With the alternatives being no television at all, or paid television, the market and profits would be mine for the taking. Even though some, like me, may not be able to afford subscription TV right now, some day the economy will improve and those who previously could not or would not buy subscription television might be fed up enough by then to bite the bullet. It's solid marketing strategy, and unethical as hell.

Ray Mondo   February 1st, 2009 2:25 pm ET

I bought a Hi Def TV with a built-in Digital tuner about 3 years ago. People have had enough time to prepare!

Does the government pay for those annoying commercials too? If so, no wonder the program is out of money... I'm glad I've been ready for almost 3 years...

OldTech   February 1st, 2009 3:26 pm ET

Who needs a converter? Anyone who gets their local channels from their own (non-dish) antenna. That may include Dish network customers not receiving the locals from Dish.

The undiscussed conversion issue is the antenna requirement. Digital (HDTV) does NOT need an HDTV specific antenna (the new broadcasts are mostly on the old UHF band and some old VHF channels). However, digital signals don't have shades of quality like the old analog channels. They either work, break up, or don't come in at all, so a strong signal is essential. Also, the shift to mostly UHF channels means remote users will probably need stronger, better antennas which still may not help beyond about 75 miles. No one will help pay for your better antenna. It's up to you.

tom   February 1st, 2009 9:11 pm ET

An additional challenge for most people getting their TV over the air, is the change in broadcast bands. Many of the stations that were on the VHF band will end up on UHF. UHF is particularly unforgiving if you are not line of sight from the transmitter. So if you are in the suburbs, rely on OTA, and do not have a decent UHF antenna, the switch will likely be quite traumatic. The converter is not going to help with this one. A cynic would surely think that rather than underthinking this, the government was drumming up more business for pay TV providers.

Fenrir   February 1st, 2009 10:53 pm ET

I live on a mountain top and get a dozen broadcast stations – no cable or satellite needed. I've gotten a digital converter and hooked it up. Truth be told, the broadcast digital signal is worthless, so I don't use it. A snowy analog picture is far superior to a choppy, pixilating digital picture or worse yet, a blank screen saying weak signal. Fortunately, I don't watch a lot of TV anymore. In my opinion, this switch is simply to force people into a pay-to-view medium rather than improve their viewing.

By the way, the thing not mentioned anywhere is that anyone still using a VCR to record their favorite TV programs has to upgrade that equipment too – they don't record digital signals.

Bill   February 2nd, 2009 12:52 am ET

There's another complication in this matter.
Beginning March 18, Comcast cable TV will begin converting channels above 32 to digital format. Customers who are now receiving the expanded basic service directly with their analog TVs will need a Comcast box. Customers who only subscribe to channels 2 through 31 do not.
This is completely independent of the on-the-air conversion, but surely will cause even more confusion among those who are confused now.

Chris   February 2nd, 2009 11:08 am ET

What no one is telling you folks, (i.e., our GOVERNMENT), is that your VCR will no longer function 'as usual'. You WILL NOT be able to watch one show while recording another. You will notice, in all of the 'it's easy to transition' messages/commercials, VCR's ARE NOT MENTIONED!!!

dennis   February 2nd, 2009 12:18 pm ET

FRINGE Areas will have the most trouble. Digital signals don't travel as far and your existing antenna may not get enough signal to feed the TV. I might take a newer amplified antenna that must be raised hgher above the roof.

Ross   February 2nd, 2009 12:35 pm ET

Five Questions:

What lamebrain picked the dead of winter for the cutoff date, when many must replace their tower or rooftop separate antennas to combo antennas?

Why do the reimbursement debit cards have an expiration prior to the cutoff date, or any at all?

Why does neither the website, which simply uses the same font in bold (not flashing, caps, etc), nor the ubiquitous TV ads POINT OUT there is an expiration date for the cards?

Why does the envelope the cards com in NOT SAY TIME-DATED MATERIAL??

If the program is out of money, why was the date NOT EXTENDED?

I did not open my envelope until recently – imagine my surprise when I learned I am now out $80, and the program is out of money.

Steve   February 2nd, 2009 12:40 pm ET

Our biggest problem in going digital isn't the converter box it is an antenna to receive the signal. Living on the outskirts of the reception area, analog signals came in though sometimes a bit snowy. With digital it is all or nothing, freezing screens for lact of data to no reception at all. It will cost us $100s more to purchase the right type of antenna that we didn't need before! THANKS A LOT

Scott   February 2nd, 2009 1:44 pm ET

Congress is looking at extending this deadline. How about dealing with the economy first, and worrying about how we watch TV later...

patrick   February 2nd, 2009 3:43 pm ET

I am incredulous at the majority of comments here.

I had always had cable because the OTA reception was garbage (yeah, you fringe area folk touting snowy analog are off your rockers! Audio distortion, multi-path induced ghosting, loss of color synchronization – I'd rather not watch at all). Imagine my surprise when the majority of my channels now come in crystal clear! All or nothing is fine by me because if the signal quality was that bad I wouldn't want to watch it anyway.


Good luck having realible communications without exclusive use of a channel. Just pick up a GMRS radio (and appropriate license) in any urban area and tell me again that shared channels are just fine. Frequency hopping spread spectrum only works when the receiver and transmitter are synchronized and having such a system hop over a range broad enough to incorporate multiple transmissions of the bandwidth required by a single Standard Definition TV station would easily drive the cost of those tuners up by an order of magnitude. FH-SS in a little cellphone radio jumping around within 40MHz of a 1900MHz signal using a channel that is only 100kHz wide is FAR different from having a signal of 4.5MHz bandwidth jumping around within 100MHz of the 500 to 600MHz band. The delta Freq is just too great for an affordable and mass produced tuner.

Franko   February 2nd, 2009 8:05 pm ET

(1) all will migrate to the Internet
     so this is another example of break the system for excessive profit
(2) You can compress (less bandwidth, efficient digital coding)
     Your 56K modem fundamental is 28Khz - compressed to 3Khz
     for one error per million; need 19db signal to noise per coding level
(3) With rabbit ears, you can watch TV a long ways
     beyond the 19db digital signal level dropout

     Think wind turbine demise of 1936 – farmers had to dismantle
     Now, glorious Emperor ObeWan will reinstall a newer model

Brad   February 10th, 2009 2:42 pm ET

if there is one person reading this article ONLINE that doesn't know what digital television is I'll have officially lost all hope for mankind

Franko   February 11th, 2009 8:25 am ET

   Detroit destroyed their electric cars, Now builds some more
   Break, and find expensive ways to change, is the mandate

VCR user   February 11th, 2009 9:23 am ET

Another problem with the converter boxes not mentioned anywhere except wikipedia is that your old battery operated TVs, like the pocket-sized ones from Radio Shack, are now useless. The problem is that the converter boxes use too much power to run off small batteries. (I don't know why.)

Another problem is that all analog tuners with channel selectors and timers, e.g., in VCRs and PCs, are obsolete. The channel selection is done in the converter.

Lisa   February 11th, 2009 12:07 pm ET

Congress and Obama should be promoting the DTV conversion as an economic stimulus package. It saves money for the broadcasters and will generate sales (new TVs, converter boxes) for the retailers.

Franko   February 12th, 2009 10:06 pm ET

From 64 QAM to 256 QAM - then 1024 QAM next ?
Are the standards settled, Just for a little while ?

With 3D TV, holograms, Interacting with your virtual date
Your modulation sceme or mine, to watch TV, virtually in bed
How will smell on cooking shows be rendered ?

Mark-E   February 13th, 2009 4:03 am ET

So far my standard Antenna is working with the Converter BOX–I'm wondering if this will change when the conversion is 100-%..since I'm useing a THREE-Antenna hook-up..I'm getting ecellent picture quality–but missing 2-stations that I could get useing the analog-signal–//..1-amplified antenna(that's switched OFF)and two Digital TV antenna's that are not amplified cn carry ABC=NBC=PBS=and 2-shopping channels..with a ABC(weather channel)and a NBC(weather channel)..I'm missing CBS and FOX..basically I think that a 3-way splitter might prove acceptable–connecting 3-antenna's facing in appropriate directions..and NOT AMPLIFIED..or use a sngle amplified,,and 2-non-amplified..on a splitter..the TV-reception is just like always..its changes–it need to move the antenna positions at times..the morning SUN seems to affect the TV reception..//..I'm just waiting for the full conversion.

Franko   February 13th, 2009 10:09 am ET

Things do get complicated - some have Forward Error Correction
- see wiki " ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) tuner"

Little difference in HDTV reception - Eirher good or not received
Now at Mpeg2 – soon to Mpeg4 - perhaps, software tuner upgrade ?

Mark-E   February 13th, 2009 10:38 am ET

I don't think I have read any info regarding FORWARD-error-Correction..the logical place is about having a stable-POST for your should not there is a differance–in the AMPLIFIED-and-NON-Amplified can't operate 2-amplified antenna's on a SPLITTER..but you can use a single amplified antenna and a dual postion of 2-DTV antenna's pointing in appropriate directions..I'm useing a 3-way SPLITTER..and a very old JENSON Amplified antenna–I pulled its RABBIT-ears out..then I have 2-new style DTV antenna's..// RCA ANT1050..then a PHILIPS SDV2711/27..the RCA I wrapped in Plastic Wrap and placed outside my window–and the Philips is inside looking out the glass window–while the JENSON is just looking EAST..thru the glass window..its not perfect all the time..but I'm satisfied so far..because the PICTURE is basically[perfecrt] does FADE.

ch11wttw   February 13th, 2009 10:51 am ET

The VCR thing is most distressing – especially to those of us that are used to just simply taping something of interest at the time it is broadcast. (A news segment, for example).
One method is to use a splitter on the antenna cable and have one line going to a converter box and VCR, the other line going to another converter box and analog TV. The trick is remembering that you need to pick the channel on the converter box, not the VCR.

Here's another catch – according to our local PBS station, most boxes have no provision to record one channel and then switch to another channel at a preset time. (the way a lot of people use [or used] their VCR). A viewer did recommend a certain box ("Zinwell" [sp?]) that has a timer of some sort in it that might work.

But this sort of stuff is not even discussed in the official FCC/DTV pages!! That's where the public is really confused!

ch11   February 13th, 2009 2:39 pm ET

Regarding portable TVs – have heard that Wineguard has a converter box with a battery pack for just that use.

Brezy   February 16th, 2009 3:56 pm ET

I chose to live out in the country, but I also chose not to have DISH or Cable.

When this switchover happens, I will be forced to use the government black box.

Guess what?

It wont work. I called the local station and they say I live too far away. To get the black box to work I now have to buy an antenna and a booster. It's beginning to add up to more money now. And the black box wasn't cheap.

Lily   April 19th, 2009 12:42 pm ET

hello webmaster/webmistree Can you provide more information on this? i sometimes read other websites that are on very similar subjects.

wii converter   July 9th, 2010 8:07 am ET

It agree, it is the remarkable answer

Bee Tsau   January 7th, 2021 3:27 am ET

I have observed that wise real estate agents just about everywhere are starting to warm up to FSBO Marketing and advertising. They are knowing that it's not just placing a sign post in the front property. It's really in relation to building relationships with these dealers who at some time will become buyers. So, while you give your time and energy to supporting these vendors go it alone : the "Law regarding Reciprocity" kicks in. Interesting blog post.

Frederic Gronosky   January 8th, 2021 2:26 am ET

Nice post. I learn something very complicated on various blogs everyday. It will always be stimulating you just read content off their writers and employ a little something there. I’d opt to apply certain with all the content in this little blog regardless of whether you do not mind. Natually I’ll provide you with a link on your own web blog. Thank you for sharing.

James Eichorn   January 24th, 2021 3:34 pm ET

Rusty Truly   January 28th, 2021 12:17 pm ET

With every thing which appears to be developing throughout this area, many of your points of view are somewhat refreshing. Nevertheless, I appologize, because I do not give credence to your entire strategy, all be it radical none the less. It would seem to everyone that your opinions are actually not totally rationalized and in simple fact you are yourself not totally confident of your assertion. In any case I did enjoy reading it.

Stephaine Lambie   January 28th, 2021 9:57 pm ET

What i do not realize is in truth how you are no longer actually much more smartly-preferred than you may be now. You are so intelligent. You already know therefore considerably on the subject of this topic, produced me individually believe it from so many numerous angles. Its like men and women aren't fascinated except it is something to accomplish with Girl gaga! Your own stuffs nice. Always maintain it up!

Buy Youtube Video Plays   February 5th, 2021 1:38 am ET

Very interesting topic, thanks for posting.

Leave Your Comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

subscribe RSS Icon
About this blog

Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

subscribe RSS Icon
Powered by VIP