Digital Television: What you need to know

By Rob Dunn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Undoubtedly, you’re probably aware on some level that the United States government mandated that all broadcasted television signals be transmitted in digital format on and after February 19, 2009.

In the good ol’ days, televisions, VCR’s, and other similar appliances were manufactured with a NTSC (National Television System Committee) tuner built-in, which receives analog television signals. But next year, the NTSC standard is being replaced by ATSC (Advanced Television System Committee), making digital television, or ‘DTV‘ the standard transmission method for over-the-air television signals.

A number of people have asked if they will need to buy a new television in preparation for the change. The answer is pretty simple, but explaining that answer sometimes is not.

So, to all those folks who stop me in the hallway to ask about “this digital thing related to TVs,” I thought I would put together a synopsis of what is planned for February 2009, and what you can do to be prepared.

The facts:

The new transmission standard results in a crystal-clear picture on any DTV-enabled device. Since the basic nature of digital is either on or off, there will be no more static/ghost/snow-laden channels.

What does that mean? With DTV, you will either have perfect TV reception, or will have NO reception whatsoever.

Here’s a quick list of important things to remember about the transition:

  • Analog television signals via major broadcasters will cease on Febuary 19, 2009.
  • 36″ or larger televisions manufactured after July 1, 2005 must have an ATSC tuner installed
  • 25″ or larger televisions manufactured after March 1, 2006 must have an ATSC tuner installed
  • All televisions of any size and all other devices that include a tuner (DVRs, VCRs, DVD recorders, etc.) must include an ATSC tuner
  • The government will provide $40 vouchers (for up to two devices) that will go toward the purchase of an eligible digital-to-analog converter boxes. This offer expires March 31, 2009.

NO, you won’t have to throw away your old TV.

If anything, you will most likely need the aforementioned set-top converter box, unless the hardware you are using to tune your channels was manufactured according to the requirements mentioned above.

Tuning channels via TV only:

Here’s the deal: If you only use your NTSC-TV to tune channels using an over-the-air antenna, then you will need a set-top converter box.

You would simply run the cable from your rooftop or rabbit ear antenna into your converter, then run another cable from the converter to your television. You would then use the set-top box to change channels from that point forward.

Analog antennas:

You will not need a different antenna to use with your television to receive DTV, your existing hardware will work just fine.

Tuning channels with other hardware such as DVRs/VCRs/DVD Recorders, etc.:

If you use a DVR (Digital Video Recorder), VCR, DVD recorder (or any combination thereof) to change channels received over the air (i.e. a device which intercepts the television signal and then plugs into the back of your TV), then you will need to make sure those devices include an ATSC tuner, or get a set-top converter box.

Cable/Satellite providers:

The transition affects over-the-air transmissions of television signals only, so if you subscribe to cable and/or satellite service, you really won’t have to worry about the loss of over-the-air analog signals. This is because your existing programming is provided to you through a closed and private conduit.

The caveat? If your providers do not carry your local stations and your TV does not have the proper tuner, you would then have to buy a set-top converter box to receive them over the air.

Hopefully by now, you get the idea.

Media/Home Theater PCs

If you are like me and have a Media PC, you will need to find out if the terrestrial pci/pcie card you are using has an ATSC tuner built-in (most cards will have a sticker on the front of their boxes stating this). If not, then now might be the time to upgrade! You could feasibly use the aforementioned converter box, but if you are using a media PC, you’re going to want to keep everything internal if possible.

Does this mean that all new TVs will be HD since they have a tuner that receives digital signals?

It is important to remember that DTV (Digital Television received by an ATSC tuner) is not the same as ‘HD TV’ (High Definition Television). Think of it this way: Hi-Def programming requires that a ATSC tuner is installed to receive it, but the ATSC tuner does not require that all programming carried is formatted in Hi-Def.

DTV is how the signal gets to you. HD TV is the format in which a program or network is filmed/broadcasted. If it isn’t formatted in HD, then it is considered to be Standard Definition Television (SDTV).

What about my old TV with the converter box? What will that look like?

Standard definition TV reception will certainly look much clearer than your existing analog signal, because DTV—by design—eliminates noise, such as ghosting, snow and static, all of which analog is famous for.

More info

For more information about digital television, you can visit, where you can find a ton of information (and a fancy schmancy countdown timer ’til ‘D-Day’!) about the transition.

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