At midnight Feb. 17, most TV stations will stop broadcasting analog signals and switch to digital signals. The federal government is requiring the change, to free up airwaves for use by police, fire, rescue and other emergency workers.
To help fight the confusion — and to help keep your TV playing — here are the top 10 things you need to know about the digital television conversion:
1. You don't need an HDTV. In most cases, your old TV will be fine, even if it's analog. You'll need a digital-to-analog converter box, which will turn the digital signals into something your analog TV can understand.
Smaller than a VCR, these boxes cost $60 or more, but the government is giving away coupons that knock $40 off the price. You're limited to two coupons per household. Read on to find out how to get them.
2. Not everybody needs a converter box. If your TV is connected to a cable or satellite box, you're good; your cable or satellite company box will handle the transition automatically in most cases.
3. Your cable company could still mess up everything. This affects you only if you plug your cable directly into the back of your television. Separately from the government-mandated switch, some cable companies will make their own switch from analog to digital service. That means if the cable company decides to switch its analog service to a digital service, your converter box won't do any good and you will need a cable box after all. Call your cable company to find out whether you have analog service and — if you do — when it will be switched to digital and what equipment you will need to buy or rent to keep getting TV.
4. You should order your converter-box coupons now. But know that you will be put on a waiting list for one. According to www.dtv2009.gov, "at this time, program funding is not currently available to fulfill your request. Your application has been placed on a waiting list. You do not need to apply again. When and if funds become available, coupon requests will be fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis." Call 1-888-388-2009 for more information.
5. Before you buy a converter box, call ahead. Phone your favorite electronics store to make sure a coupon-compatible box is in stock.
They've been selling out lately, with a delay in restocking. Don't rush to the store only to find out that they're all gone.
6. Your VCR needs its own separate converter box. That old video recorder doesn't understand digital signals any more than your old TV does, so it will need a box so you can record channel X while watching channel Y. Otherwise, you'll have to watch channel X while recording channel X.
7. Don't forget the rabbit ears. In addition to a converter box, you'll need an antenna to snatch the digital signals out of the air and transmit them to the converter box. In many areas, a set of $10 antennas will do the job, so you probably don't need the $60 or $120 models.
8. Your portable TV isn't so portable anymore. Do you have an old portable TV you keep around for emergencies? It probably has an old analog tuner that won't work after the switch unless it's connected to a converter box. And there's no such thing as a portable converter box yet. So you'll need to buy a new portable TV with a digital tuner.
9. You'll get more channels. In the old days, an antenna would bring in only a handful of channels. As many as 30 channels are available now and after the digital switch. Some TV stations have additional channels on which they can provide different programming. Given the economy, however, those stations probably aren't spending the dough to create new shows, just reruns of the early or late newscasts, along with weather. But when the economy improves, watch those stations bust out new ways to reach more viewers so they can sell more ads.
10. Your old TV won't become an HDTV overnight. Many of the new stations will be labeled "HD," but your old TV will show them in standard definition because it can't do high-def. Still, the pictures will be prettier than when your old set was new.