K.O.'d TVs


Is there a doomsday for analog type TVs? Seems that I read that on January 1st, 2006, that 8 to 10 million televisions will go blank due to new FCC rules and all TVs have to be high definition/integrated type and our analog TV will turn into a piece of useless junk. Millions of people will be without television because they will not be able to afford to buy a new HDTV. Any truth to this?

-- Jerry Lee Phillips, La Mesa

Let's all cram into the laundry room here and keep our voices down. We don't want Pa Alice to hear this. He's dead set against getting a new TV. He's convinced his 15-year-old Magnavox with the rabbit ears is good enough for anybody. But eventually he'll be looking at a blank screen and wondering why. Doom isn't quite as imminent as you fear, Jerry, but it's coming, and apparently most people don't have a clue.

See, since 1996 the feds have been fooling around with the idea of taking back the VHF frequencies devoted now to analog television signals-- channels 2 through 13. They want to reassign them to public safety communication and, rumor has it, to sell the rest to the wireless industry for newer, even more annoying applications than they've already thought up. (Think your garage door opener problem is irritating? Just wait�) Think of it as a farmer looking at his 100 acres and realizing he could buy a classier brand of bib overalls by selling out to condo builders. The VHF freeks are valuable.

So, by a certain date (possibly some time in 2009-- formerly 2008, formerly 2006-- the date changes from month to month) all TV stations must be broadcasting a digital signal to clear out the current VHF bands. Digital is transmitted in 1-0-1-0 format, unreadable by an analog set. When that happens, if you don't have a TV with a digital tuner, your screen will go blank. Manufacturers have until March of 2007 to install digital tuners in all the new TVs they offer for sale. On paper this much is true.

But, you protest, some TV stations are already offering digital signals, and you can still see those CSI idiots big as life even though your TV doesn't have a digital tuner. So what's up with that, Matthew? That's because those stations broadcast both digital and analog, and your old TV is reading the analog. And the feds say the stations can continue to do this until 85 percent of their viewing audience has digital capability, which theoretically could extend past the 2009 deadline. This 85 percent thing is one of many, many fuzzy details yet to be clarified by the FCC and Congress. Or it could be because you receive your signal via cable or satellite, and the carrier translates the signal for you. It's likely that cable or satellite service will insulate you from this digital tuner problem for a long time, but not necessarily forever.

But what about soreheads like Pa Alice who are still getting an over-the-air, antenna-style signal after the cutoff date? Well, they'll need to buy set-top digital-to-analog translator boxes to keep their nostalgic sets.

All in all, it doesn't seem necessary to rush out and glom onto a digital TV. Which is a good thing, actually, because manufacturers seem to have started with the high-end, big, expensive digital sets. The plasmas and rear projections and that kind of thing. Virtually no manufacturer has yet to offer a plain old TV with digital capability. (By the way, HDTV has to do with the way the picture is displayed on the screen, in hi-def and surround sound. The incoming digital signal is what the new laws are about. You're not required to have one of those wide-ass HDTV sets to receive a digital signal. An ordinary non-hi-def TV with a digital tuner would work just as well. But we'll have to wait and see if manufacturers offer plain digital-tuner models.)

Confused? It looks like the FCC, manufacturers, broadcasters, and Congress are too. Dates and rules seem to change weekly, so stay tuned. Things are likely to be different in six months. But in the meantime, turn on your old analog, sit back, and don't worry. Just don't tell Pa Alice.

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