Al's Morning Meeting
Friday Edition: What Viewers Need to Know About Digital TV
By Al Tompkins (more by author)
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This is the second article in a two-part primer on HD video and digital TV. Yesterday, we explored the transition photojournalists are making toward high-definition video. Today, we give you plenty of resources to help your viewers, readers and listeners understand digital television.
The federal government this week took a big step toward pushing consumers to make the long-awaited conversion to digital television. Millions of $40 government coupons will become available next week to help low-tech television owners buy special converter boxes for older TVs that might not work after the switch to digital broadcasting. (More on what that's all about below.)
In just over 12 months, the television landscape will change to digital on Feb. 17, 2009. Consumers, and even the media, seem confused by what it all will mean.
In 1996, U.S. Congress OK'd the distribution of an additional broadcast channel to all broadcast TV stations so that they could start a digital broadcast channel while continuing their analog broadcast channel. Later, Congress said the last day for full-power TV stations to broadcast in analog would be Feb. 17, 2009. The switch from analog to digital broadcast TV is referred to as the digital TV (DTV) transition. Broadcast stations in all U.S. markets are currently broadcasting in both analog and digital.
For starters, here is a glossary of digital TV terms you will need to know.
I will raise some common questions and give you some answers. The answers come from Federal Communications Commission Web sites, such as www.dtv.gov, which provides the answers to the following questions:
Will my old TV become useless? No. Consumers will always be able to connect an inexpensive receiver, a digital-to-analog converter box, to their existing analog TV to decode DTV broadcast signals. Analog TVs will continue to work with cable, satellite, VCRs, DVD players, camcorders, video games consoles and other devices for many years.
Do I have to buy a converter box? Consumers who rely on antennas (including outside antennas and "rabbit ears") to receive over-the-air broadcast signals on TV sets having only analog tuners will need to obtain separate digital-to-analog set-top converter boxes to watch over-the-air TV. These boxes receive digital signals and convert them into analog format for display on analog TVs. Analog sets connected to such converter boxes will display digital broadcasts, but not necessarily in the full, original digital quality. Digital-to-analog converter boxes will not convert your analog TV to HD.
Will I be able to see my favorite channels? Yes. If you have either a newer digital TV or a converter box.
Will TV stations be able to broadcast on multiple digital channels? Yes. Digital broadcasting allows stations to offer improved picture and sound quality, and digital is much more efficient than analog. For example, rather than being limited to providing one analog program, a broadcaster is able to offer a super sharp HD digital program or multiple standard definition digital programs simultaneously through a process called 'multicasting.'
Multicasting allows broadcast stations to offer several channels of digital programming at the same time, using the same amount of spectrum required for one analog program. So, for example, while a station broadcasting in analog on channel 7 is only able to offer viewers one program, a station broadcasting in digital on channel 7 can offer viewers one digital program on channel 7-1, a second digital program on channel 7-2, a third digital program on channel 7-3, and so on. This means more programming choices for viewers. Further, DTV can provide interactive video and data services that are not possible with analog technology.
Wasn't there some plan to give some of the old analog frequency spectrum to emergency operations radio systems? Yes. An important benefit of the switch to all-digital broadcasting is that it will free up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for public safety communications (such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads). Also, some of the spectrum will be auctioned to companies that will be able to provide consumers with more advanced wireless services (such as wireless broadband).
What do I need to know if I am planning to buy a new digital TV? As this DTV shopper guide explains:
Compare DTV picture quality. DTV comes in several levels of picture quality. The most common are: High Definition Television (HDTV), Enhanced Definition Television (EDTV) and Standard Definition Television (SDTV). HDTV is DTV at its finest. With HDTV, you can enjoy a true home theater experience. EDTV is a step up from basic television. SDTV is the basic display.
Make sure you have all the DTV equipment you need. DTV equipment can be purchased as an integrated set or as separate components. “Integrated” digital televisions have built-in tuners and a monitor to display the programming. If you buy a DTV monitor (without an integrated tuner), you will need a stand-alone tuner, cable set-top box, or satellite set-top box to watch DTV.
HDTV is not the same as DTV. HDTV requires special equipment, so make sure to ask about HDTV-capable equipment and talk to your cable or satellite provider to verify you have the proper set-top box to view HDTV.
'Digital cable ready' (or 'plug-and-play') televisions are also available. These can be used to receive digital cable TV (and often HD over cable) without a separate set-top box. A CableCARD is needed to watch certain cable programming. These televisions do not work directly with satellite -- you still need a set-top box to view satellite programming.
Compare screen types. You have a choice in DTV screens. Today, the primary options are: Cathode ray tube (CRT) screens -- traditional color television screens updated for digital; Rear Projection TVs -- rear projection TVs can create brilliant, wide-angle pictures on ever-larger screens; LCD screens -- are very thin and produce extremely clear pictures, but are currently expensive and limited in size; Plasma screens -- create a bright, clear picture up to enormous sizes while remaining very thin.
Ask what connectors you need to make sure your new DTV set works with your other electronic equipment (DVD player, digital video recorder, camcorder, VCR, computer, video games, and other equipment). The electronic equipment you have now should work with your new DTV, but you may need new connectors. Make a list of what you have now and ask your retailer what you need to connect the components.
What is the difference between digital, wide-screen and HD? Digital transmission delivers more information to the TV. Digital cable or digital satellite does not mean a program is in HD. High-def includes Dolby surround-sound and wide-screen "movie-like" format.
There are several quality levels of digital television programming. Here are the most common levels, according to www.dtv.gov:
Standard Definition TV (SDTV) -- SDTV is the basic level of quality display and resolution for both analog and digital. Transmission of SDTV may be in either the traditional (4:3) or wide-screen (16:9) format.
Enhanced Definition TV (EDTV) -- EDTV is a step up from analog television. EDTV comes in 480p (progressive-scan) wide-screen (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 in wide-screen format (16:9) 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. (Note: HDTV and digital TV are not the same thing -- HDTV is one format of digital TV.)
Converter Box Coupon Program
As www.dtv.gov explains:
Between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, all U.S. households will be eligible to request up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of up to two, digital-to-analog converter boxes. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has responsibility for administering the coupon program. More information can be found here.
Watch an Associated Press video about the converter box coupon program. See a news story on the program that launched this week.
Cable and Satellite TV
Cable subscribers may need new DTV equipment to view DTV programming in digital format, while satellite subscribers may need new DTV equipment to receive and view high-definition digital programming. You should ask your cable provider or satellite company what you will need and when.
To see how well you understand all of this, take a quiz.
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Editor's Note: Al's Morning Meeting is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The column is fact-checked, but depends on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. Errors and inaccuracies found will be corrected.