The Conversion to Digital Television Is Going To Be Unpleasant

Early in 2009, regular old analog TV will go off the air forever, replaced by new special digital tv. If you didn’t know this, you’re not the only one. From the AP:

Congress has ordered broadcasters to shut off old-style analog TV broadcasts by Feb. 17, 2009, and replace them with sharper digital ones. When that happens, millions of households with pre-digital TVs that rely on antennas will need to have purchased and installed digital converter boxes that will cost a minimum of $60 each.

“I have a great apprehension that a great mess lies before us,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., said Wednesday.

We do too. The converter boxes don’t go on sale until next January. Congress has set aside $1.5 billion to subsidize the conversion. $40 coupons will be handed out, 2 to a household, on a first come first served basis. You can request them starting Jan 1, 2008. We can’t wait to explain this to Grandma.—MEGHANN MARCO

Lawmakers uneasy about digital TV switch [Houston Chronicle]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Aston14 says:

    There will be chaos no doubt. However, I think if they go ahead and use the newly clear channels for police, fireman, EMTs and other emergency personnel, as they are supposed to once they become available, we will be better off in the long term. Remember this conversion was supposed to happen at the end of THIS year.

  2. Dervish says:

    I can’t begin to imagine what an ordeal this will be. Anyone want to guess how much Best Buy et al. will make by selling upselling uninformed consumers?

  3. Spider Jerusalem says:

    I knew this was going to happen since back in 1998, because on a class trip to D.C., they informed us it was going to happen. No one understood or cared what I was saying when I got back, because digital cable was still barely in its test stages.

    So if you get the digital converter, does this mean you still will get what is considered the “Broadcast channels” or will every channel require payment? And whose pocket are we in at the moment?

  4. G-Dog says:

    I don’t think people understand how few Americans have HDTV’s right now, and are not willing to spend more than $300 for one.

    I’m one of those people. I don’t care about HD myself, so I’m not buying an HDTV until they are cheap, like less than $400 for a 36″ 4×3 picture

  5. winnabago says:

    Many broadcast affiliates have digital low def and HD feeds along with the traditional signals already. I get 19 analog channels through my old fashioned antenna, and 7 of these have a digital version that comes in crystal clear 99% of the time.

    You need a digital tuner, but they are available under $50 on ebay. Go to and see what channels you can get in your area. The ones that say 7.1, 2.1, etc. are digital.

  6. nweaver says:

    A: The converter is an over-the-air HDTV -> plain old signal converter. So you get the same over the air HDTV channels the HDTV antenna folks do, albeit not at HDTV resolutino because you have a cheap old TV.

    Anyone with cable or sattelite doesn’t care. So only those with rabbit ears or an antenna on the roof need to transition over.

    At a net cost of $20. Ooooohhhhhhh…..

  7. Spider Jerusalem says:


    Thanks for clearing that up.

    I have a really nice LCD television, but we use rabbit ears, because cable in our area is just this side of ricockulous, and we’re already getting reamed for cable internet.

  8. Red_Eye says:

    Thank goodness I have satellite. Why should this be all that bad though digital cable has been around a while now and those receivers are available now. Its just the government subsidized ones that folks need to wait for.

  9. dufus says:

    If digital receivers and tuners only cost $60, then why the heck do HD tv’s cost so freakin’ much???

  10. mikesfree says:

    I am hoping for a good reason to get a kickass tv and hopefully this will convince the wife. What a waste though. How many CRTs will be in the dump because of people like me who hate to use tuners outside of the tv (and the universal/multiple)remotes that come with that opetion?

  11. Tango says:

    After reading the linked article I am left with the impression that Congress decided that poorer quality analog TV should be illegal and that we should spend $1.5B+ upgrading everyone Joe and Jane American’s TV sets. What? Since when is picture quality within the relm of legislation? Next will we see Congress deciding that cell phones may not be sold without a camera?

    I can see the marketing campaign for this already:
    “My fellow Americans, we have reason to believe that there are WMDs embedded in broadcast airwaves. Do your part in the war against terrorism by upgrading your TV set.”

    I wonder if the little boxes will phone home to the House Committee of Un-American Activities.

  12. kerry says:

    I’m one of those “rare” antenna-wielding households, and I can’t decide how I’m going to work the switchover. We have two TVs, one for watching broadcasts and the other for watching movies and playing video games. Do I buy two boxes just to be on the safe side? Do I buy a box just for the broadcast TV? Do I just suck it up and buy a new TV for broadcast stuff and maybe even a new TV for the movies? I probably won’t use the government subsidy, simply because I can afford to buy the converter boxes myself and don’t see the need to waste taxpayer money that could go to someone less fortunate.
    If I do decide not to buy a new TV, I will be buying a converter as soon as they’re available, just so I can get the improved channel lineups. I know my area already has about three versions of each station now, and I’d love to have access to all the alternative programming.

  13. zolielo says:

    @Dervish: A co-worker of mine wanted a newer TV so he and his wife went to Best Buy… The salesman, according to the account that I heard, tried a hard upsale to a highest end TV while quoting the FCC conversion time frame.

    I set things right the next day at work…

  14. adamwade says:

    This isn’t actually that big of a deal. It only affects people who directly watch OTA broadcasts – how many people watch TV over rabbit ears and antennas these days? Analog cable will remain unaffected on the user-end. The same cable you have always had will still come through analog and you will have to do nothing. It goes without saying that digital services will be unaffected, so only a very tiny amount of people will even notice.

    What’s interesting is how digital is bringing people back to antennas, and how this will force all broadcasters to broadcast in HDTV. As people do upgrade to HDTV sets this means tons and tons of free content. I’m upgrading to an HDTV later this year, and it’s going to be a better deal for me to get a Series 3 TiVo and get my shows OTA (80% of what I care about watching is available that way anyway) via antenna instead of getting HD service, at least at first.

    As to the comments above about “why”, it’s all about $. The analog spectrum required for broadcast TV is huge and extremely valuable. By forcing everyone to digital all that bandwidth becomes available for the government to sell to the highest bidder. There is lots of discussion out there in the tech community as to where it will all end up.

  15. rickspeaks says:

    Not to be a jerk — but John Dingell should really get a thesaurus – to use the word great twice in one sentence….that is not so great

    10 to 1 that Feb of 08 comes and goes without standard TV going off the air….

  16. Indecision says:

    @dufus: Your question represents one of the biggest misconceptions that companies have managed to implant in the brains of the public.

    “Digital” does not mean “high definition.” Digital does not, in fact, imply any sort of definition at all. You can easily send out a very crappy (AM radio quality) digital signal.

    But manufacturers take advantage of this assumption that just because something is digital, that makes it magically better. Witness “HD Radio.” The “HD” doesn’t stand for “High Definiton,” and in fact, there’s no requirement for an HD Radio signal to be any better quality. But they’re banking on the public assuming otherwise.

  17. Dervish says:

    Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. My fiancee’s dad just bought the entire entertainment setup and then some. I know they pushed every single extraneous item/cable/warranty on him they could, because he hadn’t researched before buying.

    We’re a fairly tech-savvy couple, and we still did months of research before we felt comfortable purchasing our HDTV. This conversion – even though it only requires a box – is going to be expensive and bewildering for the average non-informed consumer.

  18. gorckat says:

    @spiderjerusalem: My uncle pays for cable internet and used a splitter to run the signal to his tv.

    The tv channels and internet come along the same pipe :P

  19. saaron34 says:

    In my area, HDTV blows. I’ve done some digging, and apparently the stations in my area are running at near full capacity, and not this half-power business (could still be wrong). If that is the case, then the death of analog OTA will be the death of watchable free tv. The DTV signal is so unreliable, that you can hardly watch a single show without major pixelization, audio dropouts, or loss of the entire channel for a period of time.

    I’ve also found that DTV signals are much more sensitive to weather conditions, whereas with analog signals, the program is still watchable. We had an ice storm not long ago, and just about all the digital stations were unwatchable. Analog was fine. We have a medium size aerial in the attic, which is more than most people have (who don’t pay the fees to watch advertising (cable/sattelite)).
    BTW, digital dropouts during the superbowl were a nice touch.

    If this is how things are going to be, I think those of us who use over the air signals are going to be reading more books. Maybe this will turn into a good thing!

  20. Spider Jerusalem says:


    actually, we tried that. My friend told me about it. It didn’t work with the old POS TV, so we returned the splitter. Now Im wondering if another trip to Fry’s might not be in order.

    I also remember them saying in D.C. something about boxes sending viewer information every 10 minutes or so? To replace Nielsen families or something. I don’t know if this is already in place. It’s creepy though. Imagine that everyone that was avoiding monitoring with rabbit ears would now be subject to monitoring through their “converters”.

    The logical (and not at ALL conspiracy theorist so NYAH) extension of this would be TV licenses like in England, to make the “free” channels worth the companies’ whiles.

  21. saaron34 says:

    @gorckat: He is lucky. My cable company will put a bandpass filter on the line to allow cable internet frequencies, but block just about all cable tv. Unless of course, he climbed the pole or opened the box and did a little creative modification. Not that I would know of such things (just make sure you take the service tag off your line, too).

  22. cindel says:

    Cable and Dish cost too much, so that’s why I still have “rabbit ears”. Beside most of my shows are on Torrents anyway.

  23. mopar_man says:


    I did the opposite of this for awhile with cable TV. The internet worked for about a month before the it wouldn’t connect anymore.

  24. CaptainRoin says:

    from wikipedia[hd radio]:

    Although the acronym HD has come to mean “high-definition” in reference to HDTV, the “HD” in HD Radio is a trademark with no meaning (although a hybrid digital technology is used)

    Ahh, thats great. +1 for confusion.

  25. nequam says:

    @mikesfree: I think you’re expressing the sentiments of husbands all over the country. “Honey, the gov’t says we need a 60″ Plasma … for the cause of freedom! You don’t want the terrorists to win, do ya?”

  26. theWolf says:

    This is a fabulous expenditure of tax dollars. Now we’re subsidizing TV-viewing. I hesitate to find out how much public funding goes ostensibly towards the Obesity Epidemic(tm)–two things you’d think are working at cross-purposes.

    But no one ever got rich overestimating a meddlesome Congress.

  27. Athenor says:

    My facts are probably not 100% straight, but as I remember it from 10 years ago, the gov’t wanted some more bandwidth for municipal use (fire, police, and the like). The solution was digital TV, which could operate in a much narrower band and with overlapping signals. The companies expressed that it would cost a ton, though, and wouldn’t go digital without assurances that it would be accepted (as we all know how long it takes for the entire country to adapt a standard). So to force the issue, Congress passed a law that would force digital adoption by a date that has subsequently been pushed back many years.

    The problem comes in the rollout of digital receivers. You note how the article mentions that the conversion boxes aren’t even on sale yet? they were to be the linchpin of the whole system, able to convert digital for analog sets. It was supposed to be out years ago.

    What makes things worse is the need of not only a digital receiver, but you need a digital antenna at that. Your old rabbit ears won’t work. Combine this with the constant delays from the electronics companies, and you get the situation we are in today.

  28. Franklin Comes Alive! says:

    @Athenor: What makes things worse is the need of not only a digital receiver, but you need a digital antenna at that. Your old rabbit ears won’t work.

    This is false. There is no difference between a ‘digital’ antenna and a regular antenna. Now, some antennas may be better at picking up the signals you want than others, but there is no such thing as a digital antenna.

  29. bravo369 says:

    I told my dad just last week to start selling our analog tv’s and put that money towards a new digital set. Once people start realizing what will happen, no one will want to buy it. Might as well get some cash now before it’s too late

  30. Brian Gee says:

    @G-Dog: 4×3, huh? Good luck. I’m pretty sure everything HD is of the 16×9 widescreen variety.

    2009 is gonna be a laugh riot.

    I wonder if we’ll start seeing “pirate TV stations” popping up to broadcast content to the old sets.

  31. onewheel says:

    Most stations are already broadcasting in digital. You can see benefit from digital even with an older TV…basically, you get DVD quality video.

    HD is just a type of digital TV. Most of what is being broadcast over the air is standard definition digital, not HD.

    Unless you see the need for HD, your current TV will work fine with a tuner box. An HDTV is only needed to display high definition digital content, of which there is not a lot, unless you have digital cable. If you don’t watch much TV, it’s not worth spending a bunch of money on a new set unless you are replacing a broken one.

    Digital tuner boxes are available (LG makes one) but they are about $150.

    An inexpensive way to get a digital tuner is to purchase an Hughes HTL-HD digital tuner from eBay. These are DirecTV tuner boxes that were obsoleted by DirecTV when they changed video formats. The HTL-HD contains an ATSC (Digital) tuner, an NTSC (Analog) tuner and a cable tuner. It will work without a DirecTV dish installed. You can buy them all day for $50 to $60. It even has an antenna out so that your current set can display the picture on channel 3 or 4.

    A digital antenna is unnecessary. Digital TV is broadcast over UHF, just like current UHF.

    You may need an new external antenna to get a good picture, but those can be had for less than $50.

  32. Michael Bauser says:

    If the old TV frequencies are being converted for municipal use, does that mean old TVs will start picking up police bands? That would be silly, but cool.

    To me, the issue here is that most of the people still using over-the-air TV in the United States aren’t high-falutin’ cable-hating conscientious objectors — they’re people who can’t afford cable. They are the ones who will get forced to buy a $60 convertor or give up TV. And God only knows what kind of lies electronics retailers (I’m looking at you, Best Buy!) will tell people when they go to stores to buy a convertor.

    It’s like the Feds and the Corps teamed up to screw the poor and technologically-impaired.

  33. Buran says:

    @adamwade: Answer: People like me who subscribe to cable cos to get better signal, then find that the cable co DROPPED one of the HDTV channels you watch and has failed to fix it despite months of complaining.

  34. capitalass says:

    @bravo369: Nice. Hope to see an article about you here soon :)

  35. lonelymaytagguy says:

    I think the $40 coupon deal is a poor idea. The converters will always cost at least $40. Without coupons floating around, probably under $20.

  36. G-Dog says:

    @Brian Gee

    I should have been more clear. I have a 36 inch TV that was top of the line NTSC CTR in like, 2002. I’m not going to buy a 16×9 TV that reduces my 4×3 mode to anything smaller than 36″

  37. ahwannabe says:

    Why the hell is the U.S. government subsidizing TV sets?

    Oh, yeah, don’t want anyone to miss out on any valuable brainwashing propaganda. Especially those pesky poor folks.

  38. FLConsumer says:

    This will be a fuster cluck… As it stands now (and I don’t see the technology changing), if you can receive adequate coverage now, you’ll need a new antenna for the DTV signals, as they require a stronger signal (better signal) than analog to get something on the screen. I tried hooking up an HD tuner to my car’s TV & antenna. Works perfectly on analog with the occasional NTSC colour shift, but forget picking up any watchable DTV.

    I can’t wait for hurricane season. No way in hell portable sets are going to be able to pick up DTV. Digital may be “pretty”, but it’s quite fragile and in an emergency, I’ll gladly take a snowy analog screen rather than a blank digital one.

  39. FLConsumer says:

    One other thing…WHY didn’t we take this opportunity to meet up with the rest of the world on digital TV and use the international standards? Then prices would be much lower on newer TVs, there wouldn’t be the HDTV standard pissing war happening within the American broadcast community, and heaven forbid, we might be able to share something in common with the rest of the world.

  40. Hexum2600 says:

    You guys are going to give me an aneurysm… you DO realize that HDTV and Digital Television are different, right? A digital broadcast is not *necessarily* in HD resolution… its a digital broadcast, 1’s and 0’s modulated instead of a signal directly modulated and transmitted.

    One of the cool things this allows for is software radios. IEEE had a nice article in one or another of their journals that I get about software radios… which really shouldn’t be called a radio but whatever. Basically the idea is that any transmitted digital signal is basically the same thing, with different encoding schemes and frequencies that they are transmitted upon. A software radio lets you just use a computer to put in an encoding scheme, ala a CoDec, and a frequency and then just pipe in information to be broadcast.

    Think… one physical plant transmitting television and cellular service.

    And yes, I understand the difference in transmission and dipole length etc. etc., but the point is to have independent companies building software radio physical plants and then selling service to third party companies like cellular providers.. to actually get decent services to fairly remote locations.

    Wikipedia has a *decent* albeit somewhat dated (although as with anything dated has its own meaning in this context) article at

    Also, for a clarification on Digital vs. HD

  41. John Stracke says:


    I’m not buying an HDTV until they are cheap, like less than $400 for a 36″ 4×3 picture

    That seems like an aggressive target. Were you ever able to get a 36″ NTSC TV for $400? I paid about $1100 for my 35″ in 2000.

    Not that I’m saying you should get HDTV or anything—I have no intention of replacing my TV any time soon. I suppose it’ll die eventually; but that could take another 10 years or so.

  42. G-Dog says:

    @John Stracke

    It’s a Hitachi. The wife and I paid $380 for it at Sears in 2003 when they were cleaning out their NTSC stock.

    I consider it a downgrade to buy a 16×9 HDTV where my 4×3 picture would be smaller than what I have now. And considering the tiny amount (if any) of actual HD programing I can get with $13 a month, 36 channel Basic 1 cable, there’s no point in me buying a new TV.

    Add in the fact that I spend about 4 hours a week watching TV, and the 5K an HDTV costs could be better spent on something else.

  43. Fast Eddie Felson says:

    It’s a Hitachi. The wife and I paid $380 for it at Sears in 2003 when they were cleaning out their NTSC stock.

    I consider it a downgrade to buy a 16×9 HDTV where my 4×3 picture would be smaller than what I have now. And considering the tiny amount (if any) of actual HD programing I can get with $13 a month, 36 channel Basic 1 cable, there’s no point in me buying a new TV.

    Add in the fact that I spend about 4 hours a week watching TV, and the 5K an HDTV costs could be better spent on something else.

    1. It depends on what you mean by a ‘tiny amount’, but basic cable should buy you the majority of HD content out there. Cable providers send an unencrypted HD version of all the broadcast networks (assuming the stations they carry are broadcasting in HD) along with their analog cable. If a TV has a QAM tuner, it can see those channels.

    2. HDTVs cost an order of magnitude less than you think, depending what size you’re talking about. The first hit on searching Amazon for ‘hdtv’ is a $450 30″ HDTV (with built-in tuner).

    Of course, that still doesn’t mean it’s worth it, but I think you’re overestimating the costs of HDTV and underestimating what one can get out of it.

    As a general prediction, I’ll claim this will turn out bit like Y2K: a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about how it’s going to be awful, but not turning out too bad precisely because of all the angst.

  44. arkan says:

    I’ve had an HDTV for 2 years now but it didn’t have an ATSC tuner, so I was never able to get HD channels without forking money over to my cable company. Last week I bought a new LCD TV that included an ATSC tuner, and the difference is amazing. All of the analog signals come in very snowy but the digital channels all come in crystal clear and not only that, I get several more digital channels then are even available analog (our PBS station here has 5 digital channels and one analog, for example)

    The government is doing this so that they can recapture the spectrums used by analog television, which can be used for many useful things, including emergency response, internet service, etc.

    The TV stations have plenty of notice (and plenty of time still) to get their DTV channels up to snuff in areas where there are still shortfalls. Their business depends on it, so I have no doubt they’ll get the job done. And since the FCC is giving out vouchers for the digital tuners, I don’t see any problem whatsoever.

  45. quagmire0 says:

    I really don’t see the big deal. LCD sets are getting cheaper and cheaper, and you now have 2 years to buy a new TV. Worst case scenario is you’ll buy what will then be a cheap converter box to view digital over analog. The technology is available now, as my DVR dual tuner box from Dish can broadcast the digital and even HD channels to my regular old analog TV upstairs.

    This is the Y2K ‘problem’ all over again. We’ll be fine people. :)

  46. swalve says:

    1) The digital tv broadcasts on the same channels as regular tv. When digital began, the broadcasters were given a temporary second channel for their digital broadcasts. The spectrum for channels 2-50 something will remain the same. What the analog shutdown does is allow then to lop off the upper channels and sell licenses to the highest bidders.

    2) The sale of those licenses will more than pay for the converter subsidy.

    3) This will be good for the over-the-air broadcasters because they’ve been running two transmitters apiece for a while now, so they’ll be glad to turn off their old analog transmitter. It’s also good because digital broadcasting requires way less power to get the same coverage, so their power bills go down.

    4) It’s good for the cable customer because it will force the cable/satellite company to improve their signal quality. Often, the cable/satellite companies just throw up an antenna for the local channels and send it out to the customers. Also, the cable/satellite people have tended to over-compress their signals. Now that there is a free option that has better signal quality, they will have to improve.

  47. snrub says:

    Whats the point of this plan? And why is govt. pushing it? I think that the 1st step in this process should be to make better tv, rather than crap with 4x the detail. I don’t need hdtv and I object to this pressure to spend a lot of money on new technology

  48. karmaghost says:

    “Grandma, that TV won’t work without a converter box after Feb 2009.”

    “Really? Where did you hear that?”

    “From the internet.”

    “The what-now?”

  49. BocceBalls says:

    I purchased an HDTV at Costco a few years ago but without the tuner. I knew it would be a few years till the change over so I wanted to be in a position to have the lastest one on the market for much cheaper.Once I have the tuner I can access ll of my local channels in HiDef but if I want anything only offered on current cable I will have to pay extra for their HiDef feed.

    It’s called getting screwed coming and going and not simply having an HDTV like we were led to believe years ago.

  50. Rusted says:

    My TV is a 16 by 9 30″ Samsung HDTV ready, but has no digital tuner nor will it ever get one. It’s connected to my DVD player. Every time I visit my bro-in-law and see the latest drivel, the urge to connect to the outside world….just….goes….away.

  51. psyop63b says:

    OMG, whatever happens, we must not let the people tune off their TV sets!

  52. leftyw says:

    I have two perfectly good televisions that pick up signal via antennae. I am certainly not going to ditch these, run out and buy new TVs, and send these to the landfill; nor am I going to buy in to this fucking SCAM and buy more equipment because the bailout jockeys decided it’s time to move forward. You know what? Fuck you. I guess I won’t see when tornadoes are coming.