The date for the end of civilization as we know it is set. At the stroke of midnight on February 17, 2009, millions of TVs across America will go blank. Cars will cease to run. Cell phones will go dead. Rampant hordes of people will roam the streets in a zombie-like daze. We’ll be plunged back into the Dark Ages and the survivors will be forced to scavenge for food like packs of wild beasts.
Okay, okay, that’s mostly not true. But that date does signal the end of one thing: Per congressional mandate, over-the-air analog TV broadcasts will cease as of February 17, 2009.
Why The Switch?
The primary reason for the switch to digital television (DTV) broadcasting is to free up portions of the old analog transmission spectrum for public safety & emergency services broadcasters like police & fire departments. This will also allow the auctioning off of other parts of the analog spectrum to companies like AT&T to increase wireless broadband technology for faster wireless use. Additionally, DTV offers far better picture & sound quality and switching to digital gives broadcasters the ability to deliver enhanced technology services to the public with greater efficiency.
(By the way, on September 8, 2008, the lucky folks in Wilmington, North Carolina will serve as a pilot market for the digital switchover.)
Does This Affect Me?
But what exactly does that mean to you & me? Honestly, probably not too much. If you have satellite or cable service, your existing setup should keep on serving you just like always. And that’s even if you’re still only using analog cable. However, be mindful that while the switch to digital broadcast won’t affect analog cable subscribers directly, many cable provider companies will probably use this as an opportunity to strongly encourage their analog customers to make the transition to digital service.
Ah, but what if you’re still relying upon the old "rabbit ears" or some other antenna to pluck a free TV signal out of the ether? Then you definitely will be affected. But even then, unless you have an incredibly ancient TV with no line-in options, all you should need is a digital converter box. What’s more, your Uncle Sam will give you a $40 voucher towards the purchase of a digital converter box. (You can call 888-DTV-2009 or go to www.dtv2009.gov for more details.) And if you’ve bought a new television since 2004, you’re probably already covered since most newer TVs have a digital converter inside.
Does DTV Equal HDTV?
But wait a minute… Don’t you still need a "High Definition" television (HDTV) to handle the digital signal? No, not at all. Your TV does not have to be HD to receive digital broadcasts. Certainly, there are some HD channels in the digital lineup that will take advantage of a HDTV, but the singular, simple truth is that even if you’re still clinging onto an old-school, tube-based television from two decades back, it should still work fine — you do not need a new TV to receive digital broadcasts.
However, this basic truth isn’t going to stop Circuit City, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and every other retailer from doing everything possible to cash in massively on the public’s misconceptions & fear.
Starting with "Black Friday" sales after Thanksgiving — if not sooner — these opportunistic retailers will profit handsomely off of the perception that most older TVs are going to go dead in February. And of course, there’ll also be the post-Holiday "we didn’t bleed you dry enough already" sales frenzy in January and continuing right up to D-Day. So for the next several months, you’re almost certain to see rampant hordes of zombie-like neophytes roaming the aisles of stores with a crazy twitch in one eye and nervous shake that intensifies when a salesperson draws near.
So we’ve established that you don’t need to kick that old TV to the curb for the sake of the February deadline. Your old TV will most likely keep right on working just fine. But while your older analog TV can handle a digital signal, either via cable or a converter box (and look better than it did with analog broadcasts) it won’t display high-definition resolutions with a converter box. So, if you’re itching for a TV that can display "High Definition" (HDTV) — or just want a big, new, widescreen, flat panel plasma or LCD TV with all the trimmings — you’ll need to make the move to a newer TV.
If you’re ready to shop around for a new TV, you’re bound to find some enticing deals in the coming months. So this might be just the right time to be in the market for a replacement for your old set. But before you join the ranks of those living dead scrabbling through sales fliers and hopelessly trying to rationalize dropping a grand or more on a new TV so you can get it home in time for the next season of American Idol & NBA playoffs, take a deep breath and spend a little time seriously considering "need" versus "want." Don’t let the paranoia & hype surrounding the looming digital broadcast switchover deadline pressure you into a costly move if you’re otherwise happy with what you’ve got.