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The Digital Dilemma

Obama look to delay Feb 17 TV switch, but local providers say it's now or never

January 14, 2009

By Cindy Wojdyla Cain

President-elect Barack Obama thinks it may be too soon to pull the plug on analog broadcast TV signals.

He's asked Congress to delay the country's planned Feb. 17 conversion from analog to digital.

But area TV company owners say the conversion of all broadcast signals to digital has been in the works for 18 months or longer and it is now or never.

"I think a lot of people are looking for the switch to happen," said Wally Toton, owner of Toton's TV in Crest Hill. "People want progress. They want better pictures and more channels."

But Toton admits that some people, many of them seniors, are confused about the switch. They aren't sure how to hook up converter boxes to older analog TVs that receive a broadcast signal from an antenna. The boxes will convert the digital signal to analog so the TV will continue to receive a picture.

"They're actually calling us for service to ask us to hook it up," he said. "They don't know how to do it."

Some customers are buying new TVs for their parents to avoid converter confusion, Toton said.

"Some customers have said, 'My mother or father has a converter, and now they have two remotes, and they're confused and they don't know which one to pick up first."

But even with the confusion, Toton said the deadline shouldn't be moved back.

"A lot of people are saying, 'Let's just move on and get it over with,'" he said.

Toton's TV doesn't sell the converter boxes. But the shop is busy selling new digital TVs for people who want to upgrade and avoid the hassle of a converter.

Converters Going Fast

Abt, a family-owned electronics store in Glenview, does sell the converter boxes and they're selling like hotcakes, said owner Mike Abt. Last year, the company sold about 1,000 a month. Now it is 80 a day, which would be 2,400 a month.
"We're gearing up for a huge February," he said. "Our sales keep going up and up on these boxes."

Like Toton, Abt doesn't think delaying the switch to digital is a good idea. Human nature being what it is, some people will procrastinate no matter when the deadline is, he said.

"It was set to be Feb. 17, and it should really stay that way."

While some people may be confused about what they need to do to continue receiving a TV broadcasting signal, everyone who watches TV or reads a newspaper should realize by now the switch is coming, Abt said.

"Anyone who is alive has heard the story at least once," he said. "Some people are going to be late, but that's OK. ... Everyone delays, and you do need a deadline. To me a deadline is a deadline. We have to live up to our deadlines."

The government has been mailing out $40 coupons to people who asked for them to help pay for the converter boxes. But the Commerce Department has run out of money for the subsidy, which is one of the reasons Obama wants to put the brakes on the conversion.

The Facts

Abt said there are some misconceptions about the switch that he and his employees are trying to dispel. Here are some of the basics:

  • People who get their TV signal from satellite or cable providers do not need converter boxes.
  • People who have analog TVs that get their signal from an antenna, do need converters, which cost $40-$50. Or they can invest the money in a new digital TV.
  • Manufacturers are not going to produce converter boxes for much longer. So either get one now or be prepared to get a new TV if you delay.
  • Some people may need to buy a better antenna to receive a digital signal if they live out in the boonies. Unlike analog, which can travel farther as a weak signal, you'll either get a digital signal or you won't.
  • VCRs are not going to work with a digital signal, and you'll need a converter for them, too, or you can tape shows through cable, satellite system or a buy a digital video recorder.

"All VCRs are off the grid," they're a problem, Abt said. "The VCR will officially die in 2009. Tape will go away."

Toton said he expects a lot of people to ditch their analog TVs once the switch takes place.

"You'll be riding up and down the street seeing these old sets out by the garbage."

©2009 Digital Chicago, Inc.