Posted by: distributorcap | October 11, 2008

There is nothing wrong with your TV set….

With the digital conversion 4 months away, I am reposting this entry from January 2008 (edited of course).

Some of us (like me) might remember (just barely) the 1963 ABC series The Outer Limits. Every week the show opened with the following words:

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. For the next hour we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to The Outer Limits.

I actually thought the TV was controlled by someone else (this was pre-cable and pre-remote days). The Outer Limits actually had some great episodes and writers, including Joseph Stefano (who wrote Psycho) and Harlan Ellison. Two of the Harlan Ellison episodes (Soldier and Demon With A Glass Hand) were the inspiration for the movie The Terminator.

Enough with the TV history

On February 17, 2009 there very well might be something wrong with your TV set. On that day 70 years of analog broadcasting ends in the US, as all television stations must switch over to broadcasting exclusively with a digital signal. (For those of you in Wilmington, No Carolina – this has already happened). After that date, analog sets –unless they are connected to cable, satellite or a special converter box for an antenna — become great big boxes of Ted Stevens tubes. Virtually all tube television sets (the familiar masssive and deep sets) are analog. Just about all of the newer LCD/Plasma flat screen sets are digital — but some (those from a several years ago) are NOT. You must check to see if they have a digital tuner. If you purchased a television after March 1, 2007, your set should be ready for digital. The FCC (which oversees broadcasting) had previously mandated that all new TVs sold after 3/1/07 had to be equipped with a digital tuner.

I expect we will see an environmental nightmare as a whole bunch of television sets will be sitting on the curb awaiting garbage pick-up. Or maybe they will be on eBay with 99 cent opening bids. Perfect for the retro home

What is Digital Television (DTV)?

DTV is simply video and audio that is delivered to a TV set using a digital signal (basically a series of 1s and 0s) rather than an analog signal (which is more like a wave). DTV will allow broadcasters to offer television with a much better picture and sound quality. It will also allow broadcasters to have multiple channels (also called multi-casting) and interactive capabilities. Converting to DTV will free up parts of the analog broadcast spectrum for other services, such as public and safety services (police and fire departments, emergency rescue), and advanced wireless services.

The transition to DTV has been proceeding quietly for a couple of years. Here in New York (and many other cities), the major stations are already broadcasting via their assigned digital signal, some with multi-casting. They are continuing to use the analog signal to provide programming through February 17, 2009. On that date, full-power TV stations will cease broadcasting on their current analog channels, and the spectrum returns to the US government.

One point of confusion — DTV is not HDTV (High Definition Television). DTV is the mode of delivery. HDTV is digital signal quality. More on that below.

If your television (no matter how old) is hooked up to a cable or satellite box, your provider is responsible for making sure the signal is converted, so your TV set (even if it is analog) will be still be usable. You still may need some equipment or upgrades.

The conversion is potentially a HUGE problem for people who view television via over-the-air. Around 13% of the US population still views television with a roof-top antenna or “rabbit ears”. This percentage varies by city – in New York only around 4% of the population views TV via over-the-air. In Chicago it is 14%, In Dallas it is 22%. Many homes that have a cable/satellite hook-up will often have a second or third TV that still uses roof-top antennae or rabbit ears. Analog TVs will also continue to work with games, VCRs, DVDs, camcorders and similar items.

Analog TVs will need a special converter box to continue to receive over-the-air television after February 17, 2009. These boxes receive the digital signals and convert them into analog format for display on analog TVs. Analog TV sets using converters will display DTV, but not with digital quality. The US Government, in-between spying on you and fighting immoral and illegal wars, has been issuing $40 coupons toward the purchase of these converters (they cost between $50-75) since Jan. 1, 2008 and will continue through March 31, 2009. You can get up to two coupons. Expect them to show up on eBay with discounts. The NTIA is administering the coupon program.

If your TV is a digital set with digital rabbit ears — you do not need the converter box. You probably will not need a special antenna, but your antenna must be able to receive UHF signals — those from channels 14-83. Digital signals are all UHF.

Cable and Satellite TV

Cable and satellite subscribers may need some new DTV equipment to view DTV programming in digital format. Your cable provider should know what you will need and when you will need it. (if you can get a human on the phone, or one that is not in Malaysia). You may need to upgrade to digital cable.

So to make this more confusing – digital cable is not DTV. If you have digital cable, it does not mean your set is digital – it means you have digital cable. You may need to upgrade to digital cable to get DTV. Confused? – everyone is.

DTV Quality Levels

There are many quality levels of digital television programming. The most common are:

  • Standard Definition TV (SDTV). SDTV is the basic level of quality display and resolution for both analog and digital. SDTV may be viewed in either the traditional (4:3) or widescreen (16:9) format aka “aspect ratio”. 16:9 is what you see in movie theatres.
  • Enhanced Definition TV (EDTV). EDTV is a step up from SDTV. EDTV comes in widescreen (16:9) or traditional (4:3) format and provides better picture quality than SDTV, but not as high as HDTV.
  • High Definition TV (HDTV). HDTV provides the highest resolution and picture quality of all digital broadcast formats. Combined with digitally enhanced sound technology, HDTV sets new standards for sound and picture quality in television. HDTV is viewed in 16:9 aspect ratio and is either 720p (720 lines of data) or 1080p/1080i (1080 lines). The more lines, the sharper the picture. 1080p is the best picture available.

Digital Television Facts At A Glance

DTV offers picture and sound quality that is noticeably better that analog because digital transmissions are free of snow, ghosts, or static noises. (if there are issues with the signal, you will see what is know as pixilation — or some small boxes on the screen). HDTV offers even more significantly improved images, comparable to what you see in a movie theater. Most (but not all) digital TVs sold in the US are High Definition compatible. While TV stations will be required to convert to digital broadcasts, they are not required to offer HDTV broadcasts. Most TV stations will deliver some HD programming and are adding much more as time goes on. Most prime programs on NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, ESPN etc. are currently broadcast in HDTV. Still confused? – you should try talking to people in retirement homes about this.

If your favorite show (and we ALL love American Idol) is produced in HDTV, it is not enough to just have a digital TV set to see it in HD. There are other criteria – the local station (like KDFW, Channel 4 in Dallas or WAGA, Channel 5 in Atlanta) must retransmit the show in HD and your set must be HDTV compatible (as well as digital). If both criteria are not met, you will see the show in standard digital format (SDTV). Are you still confused? — try getting phone calls about this everyday.

How do you determine whether your television set is DTV or digital. Many manufacturers put labels or markings right on the sets, or will list it in the never-read or already-lost pamphlets that come with the televisions. Some key words are “Integrated Digital Tuner” or “Digital Tuner Built-In.” “Receiver” may be substituted for “Tuner,” and “DTV,” “ATSC,” or “HDTV” (high definition television) may be substituted for “Digital.” If your television equipment contains any of these labels or markings, you should be able to view digital over-the-air programming without the converter box.

If your television set is labeled as a “Digital Monitor” or “HDTV Monitor,” or as “Digital Ready” or “HDTV Ready,” this does not mean it actually contains a digital tuner. You will likely need a separate set-top converter box which contains a tuner in order to view programs in digital. Are you still confused? I betcha Sarah Palin can explain this all in two shakes of a moose’s tail.

I have two flat screen HD digital sets. One is hooked up to Time Warner digital cable. The other receives the HD over-the-air signal using a converter box and digital antenna. The set receiving the picture over-the-air gets a much better HD picture than the set attached to cable. Cable companies often compress the signal to transmit it through their wires. That degrades the HD picture, sometimes dramatically. I will say sports (of which you all know I am not a fan of) looks great in HD – you can see every blade of astroturf.

Then again if you don’t have a television set, NONE of this matters. But your favorite bar that plays ESPN or MSNBC better get on the bandwagon.

The government, the networks, Nielsen and other groups are extremely worried about this conversion. There is a lot of confusion out there. Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Andorra have completed their conversions. Nielsen estimates somewhere between 60-70% of all homes that need to be ready for conversion, are actually ready. There is also concern that people who have cable/satellite will rip out their boxes thinking they need to be replaced. In light of all these changes, Nielsen has moved the familiar February Sweep to March to accommodate the change.

So now ALL of you are experts on the digital conversion. But I think you should hurry – and do this as so soon as possible. You don’t want to miss how John McCain looks even older in HD. And of course everyone should want to watch the departure of George W. Bush on 1/20/09 with the best picture quality available — for in this case seeing is truly believing. And of course American Idol starts up again in 2009.


  1. My head is spinning. I am in the minority, with those who refused to pay for television, aka the "rabbit ear" group. I know, you get what you pay for, but much of the good stuff can be accessed on the internets. I possess the coupons for the converter box, but a part of me wants to switch to dish. I bet some of the equipment will not be compatible with older sets & they will wind up in the landfill.I do look forward to seeing the Decider depart on1/20/2009 ~ just 100 days from now (Yes! I'm counting!!!).

  2. Wow. I hear this addressed on PBS all the time, but never in detail. Thank you!

  3. I have satellite and the family watches a flat screen and after reading this I am going to check it out.I haven’t watched television in three years and the last few years I watched the only channels that appealed to me were the discovery channel, history and National Geographic, and even these had frequent reruns.I cannot say I miss television at all.There is way too much to do in life. I would not be surprised that this changeover loses network viewers as some people couldn’t be bothered going through the effort.

  4. Well I will avoid the smart mouthed remarks asking how you know all of this. Sort of.I do not miss that business at all ever. The DTV thing is a good example of how we can be isolated without even knowing it. I have been thinking about this – or should I say HAD been since 1999.

  5. Thank you for this informative article. I’ve been hearing about this for months but no one has been able to clearly explain it to me until now.

  6. dcAp,i have cable (and have been thinking of switching to direct tv for months but never did anything about it), so i don’t have to worry about getting a converter. i was listening to the radio, a show about technology that’s on on weekends, and they were talking about the converters. it was a couple of months ago. they were saying that people should wait to get the converters, because the technology will get better quickly, and if you get one too soon, you might wind up with a piece of shit that doesn’t work as well as later models will. do you know which models are best and if it is a good time to get the converters? there is still time, and there might be better models a month or 2 from now. then again, they might run out of them, so maybe it’s best to get one now in case it has to be ordered. like i said, i don’t need one, but it might be helpful info for someone who does.

  7. It’s getting too complicated to watch TV, I’ll just read a book.

  8. Wait…the cable version of HD doesn’t look as good as the over-the-airwaves version?Thats so wrong. We pay for cable…its supposed to be better than over the air…right?

  9. Wow, great detail, D-Cap.I “have a good friend” with pirated cable.I think all this switch to digital has less to do with improving the quality of TV and more to do with the big cable companies lobbying the government to mandate the switch so that people like “my friend” will have to pony up some actual dough every month so “she” can keep watching True Blood on HBO.A cable geek I know told me “to tell my friend” that with the new technology the cable companies will be able to see at a glance who’s nicking their services.I have seen shows on digital TV and I don’t see a bit of difference.It’s a racket, I tell ya, designed to weed out the true mavericks in our midst.

  10. I’ll bet the cable companies unplug their phone lines in Feb. They did a test of the system out here. I’ve got two sets. One to a cable box and one straight cable. The one thru the box didn’t work while the one on straight cable worked. Both TVs are analog by the way.

  11. Hey, would you like to release into the public domain that super cool vintage picture of Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman you uploaded last year?I send you a Flickr mail but I don’t know if you use that anymore.By the way, I’m commenting here because I couldn’t find an email address anywhere, sorry about that.

  12. We’re 2 1/2 yrs behind you guys here in Canada. Our conversion date is August 31, 2011. Many of the provinces have recycling taxes for TVs. Ontario Plans A TV Recycling Fee

  13. Now you have thoroughly depressed me. I suppose just getting the converters for our couple of sets that aren’t cable hooked up won’t be enough. Nice. now I can go in the corner and babble a while.

  14. Another public service announcement from your friendly neighborhood DCap.

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