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Change Of View

August 14, 2008


By now everyone has seen the public service announcements on television saying their sets will be defunct as of February 17 if they don't have a digital converter box.

The announcements let viewers know that TV stations will begin broadcasting entirely in digital, which cannot be interpreted by analog TVs. They are told a converter box will allow them to receive the digital signals.

Jason Wilson, a service technician at Abt Electronics, demonstrates how easy hooking up a digital converter to a TV can be.

But viewers in the northern suburbs want more information and electronics stores are saying, yes, there is more to the story.

Kirby Jenquin, sales associate at Tweeter in Deerfield, said his store receives an average of 20 call per week from people with questions about the conversion. Mike Abt, president of Abt Electronics in Glenview, doesn't know how many questions his store is getting over the phone, but it's enough to offer a class about the transition.

Out of the picture

It's true, they say, that your old analog TV will not receive images after Feb. 17. TVs made before 1998 are analog.

"You'll be looking at static," Abt said.

Converter boxes, which cost between $50 and $60, will translate the digital signal for your TV and allow you to watch it. The picture will be sharper and the sound better (shadowing and ghosting will no longer be a problem), but it won't be as good as picture and sound the high definition digital TVs now offer.

TV viewers with analog TVs will still need their antennas, or an antenna, after the converter box is installed. According to the Federal Communications Commission, some viewers may need a new antenna.

The transition gets even more complicated when you factor in VCRs. They will require a converter box, too, said Whit Downer, facilitator of Abt's electronic workshops.

"Overlooked in all the publicity being run by the TV public service spots is the situation with VCRs," he said. "People that still want to record TV shows while they watch something else will require one converter box devoted to the VCR, and one for the TV. And if they want to use remotes for each converter box, they will need different brands of converter boxes. Otherwise, one remote will command both converter boxes, and their recordings will be messed up big time."

May be no problem

But, if all this sounds like technical mumbo jumbo, don't panic about the converter box for your TV just yet, Jenquin said.

You might not need it. If your old analog TV is hooked up to cable or satellite, you will not need the converter box; you'll be able to watch TV without a problem.

"If you have cable or satellite," Jenquin said, "you need to do nothing."

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration also recommends people check their TV's owner manual to see if there's a digital tuner built in. If there is, it won't require a converter box. If an owners manual isn't available, the NTIA suggests looking on the back of the television set for an input connection labeled "digital input" or "ATSC," which stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee.

However, the NTIA warns, not all "digital" TVs are created equal. Sets advertised as "HD-ready" or "HDTV monitors" were often just monitors capable of displaying a digital or high definition image, but lack the ability to receive a digital signal. A converter is required for those sets, too.

Get wired easily

Hooking up a conversion box is easy, Jenquin said.

Basically, the antenna cable goes in the "Antenna In" jack on the converter box, then connect with a cable the "Antenna Out" jack on the box to the "Antenna In" jack on the TV. Then plug in the convertor box and follow the directions that show up on your TV screen. Directions may vary with different brands.

"It's just a couple of wires," Abt said. "It's easier than hooking up a VCR."

The boxes are also inexpensive if you get the $40 coupon offered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. To apply for coupons, go to www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009. Each household is limited to two coupons.

Of course, the analog TV owner could always just buy a new digital TV. These have become popular thanks to high definition image quality.

However it may not be so easy for the segment of the population attached to their analog sets.

"We've had analog for 50 years," Jenquin said. "There are a lot of tubes floating around out there that still work."

Should the analog TV viewer decide to upgrade to digital, he or she should not simply toss out the old set.

Abt Electronics has a TV recycling program, which sends two semi trucks full of electronics to a recycling center each week.

"All the old TVs had lead in them," Abt said. "They're not earth-friendly."

For more information about digital TV and the transition, check out www.dtv.gov or see dtvanswers.com.

©2008 Digital Chicago, Inc.