For the Love, Please Get Ready for the DTV Switch

Apparently 7% of you are woefully unprepared for the switch from analog to digital over-the-air TV signals on February 17, 2009. The easy answer is to get satellite or cable service, but a lot of folks just aren't willing to shell out the bucks. Plenty of you are also unwilling to grab a new TV that can pick up the digital signals. Even those of you aware of the DTV switch might not be getting a signal after the switch due to the way that the digital signals work. (For instance, I had no idea I'd need to point an antenna at a heading of 279° to get digital stations at full strength.) In that spirit, I though it would be a good idea to bring together a round-up of resources to set you straight.

First, go to Comsumerist and use their flowchart to figure out what exactly you need to do in very simple terms. You basically have three options: subscribe to a cable or satellite package, buy a new TV with a DTV tuner (if you don't already have one) or buy a converter box to use with your old TV.

If you're going for a cable or satellite package, note that cable companies are required to support analog TV sets until at least 2012 due to FCC mandates. That said, a lot of cable providers are moving a lot of their analog channels onto more expensive digital packages, so make sure you're getting the channels you want. I don't think Satellite providers are under the same mandates, but support for analog TVs is not going away anytime soon.

If you're buying a new TV, it might be a good idea to wait until after Christmas to do so. Most analysts predict that a 32" LCD HDTV will drop to around $300 by that time as consumer spending continues to drop and retailers become eager to dump inventory. If you have the funds, consider going with a plasma TV instead of LCD. The colors are brighter and richer than an LCD, but it's only available on larger sets. Also save money by buying a 720p set instead of a 1080p one. Unless you're getting a screen larger than 50" and plan to watch HD content (like Blu-Ray movies), you're wasting your money.

If you plan to stick it out with your old set and a converter box, sign up for a converter box coupon NOW. Not tomorrow, not next week, NOW. The cut-off for coupons is December 31, 2008 and they're good for up to $40. Most converter boxes are $50-60, so this is a significant savings. Consumer Reports has a shoot-out of various converter boxes and you can get the coupon from

If you go for a HDTV or converter box, you need to pay special attention to what antenna you use. Unlike current analog TV signals, DTV signals do not handle interference well and just like with a cell phone, a bad signal results in chunks of what you're watching disappearing. AntennaWeb lets you punch in your address to see a list of available TV stations, what compass heading they're broadcasting from and what type of antenna you need to pick them up. In some cases a cheap antenna pointed in the general direction of the broadcast tower is enough. In some extreme examples, you might need to have a new antenna professionally installed on your roof and aimed more precisely at the tower.

If you still have questions on the digital TV switch, go to DTV Answers for for information. And don't say I didn't warn you if you can't watch your favorite programs on February 17.

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3 Responses

  1. Tony Parker says:

    I ordered my coupons early. After days spent researching the best converter boxes, I decided to make my purchase. Off to the store with my shining new orange plastic $40 ‘gift cards’ I went as happy as a lark. The first store had none on stock. By ‘none’ I mean no converter boxes whatsoever, good, bad, or ugly let alone my pet model. So, I figured the giant box store would have something. After store after store finding no converter boxes, I put my government-issued coupons in a drawer to await the machinery of American, uh, or Chinese, industry to meet the demands of converter box consumers. Two weeks and nothing but over-priced E-Bay vendors seemed to have any converters for sale but they laughed at my shiny orange gift cards. As a teacher, I soon become immersed in work during the autumn months and decided I’d have time during Christmas break to get some converters. Well, I gave up trying to find the perfect converter box, deciding to take the first one that came along since February’s DTV deadline loomed. Early this morning, I went to a local Wal-Mart that just received 20 units so I grabbed two of them and went to the counter only to find out that the government-issued coupons expired and Wal-Mart wouldn’t take them. I went home thinking I could call a reasonable person in the Commerce Department to quickly have the cards reactivated through their computer system and it would be no big deal. Ha, it’s the government, I should have known I was dreaming. It’s not that they can’t reactivate the cards, it’s that they won’t. This didn’t make sense to me and made less sense to learn that they won’t re-issue new coupons. I learned that the only options I have now are to find a buyer for my cards (since there are unscrupulous people out there who can reactivate these) and use whatever money I can get for them to purchase over-priced converter boxes. Or, I can just use my television sets to watch DVDs until converter boxes start showing up at Goodwill for $5. I should have known that spending money to produce fancy plastic cards that can’t be used would be the outcome of government involvement in the DTV switch. I’ve decided I’m going to wait for the big government TV bailout when they will send me a new large screen HDTV. I’m not sure how long it will take but while I’m waiting I’ll be reassured that autoworkers and bankers and brokers will be able to watch DTV in their mansions while I watch true non-commercial TV at home.

  2. Jesse says:

    I didn’t understand the coupon expiration thing either, especially when they had to know that supplies would be short initially. One possible work-around is to get a friend or neighbor to apply for an extra coupon (or one they don’t need) and pass it off to you.

  3. Tony Parker says:

    Thanks Jesse, I’m working on that. It seems like all my cable ready friends and acquaintances have already been hit up for their coupons already or need at least one of them. I must get some wealthier friends because I thought the majority of people would fall into the over-the-air-crowd yet and I found out that statistically we are only 16% of the viewing public. No wonder we don’t hold much political clout–its no big deal for most people. I’m still waiting to hear back from a distant relative and some acquaintances on availability of using their coupon but most are checking with closer friends and relatives first. I knew my crotchity personality would be a disadvantage someday!

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