Will my TV set stop working after the switch to digital broadcasts in 2009?

By The Associated Press

Q: The TV
set I just bought has a warning label saying it will need a “converter
box” in 2009 because of a switch to digital broadcasting. What’s that
about?

A: Those
stickers, mandated by the Federal Communications Commission, started appearing
in May. What’s happening is that on February 17, 2009, TV broadcasters will be
turning off their analog over-the-air broadcasts, the kind you tune into with
rabbit-ear antennas.

The FCC is
making the TV stations do this because digital broadcasting is much more
efficient, using less of the valuable radio spectrum. The government will take
that spectrum back and auction it off for other uses.

The
converter boxes mentioned on the label are not yet available, but the National
Association of Broadcasters has shown off prototypes from LG Electronics and
RCA. The smallest one, from LG, was about the size of a paperback book, but the
production version may be smaller.

You won’t
need a digital converter to watch cable or satellite TV, or play movies from
DVD players or VCRs. Game consoles are also unaffected.

The boxes
will go between the rabbit-ear antenna and the TV set, converting the digital
broadcast to an analog signal the TV can use. They’ll need a power supply, and
come with their own remote.

The price
for a box is expected to be between $50 to $70, according to NAB spokeswoman
Shermaze Ingram, but the government will be issuing two $40 coupons (actually
plastic cards that work like gift cards) to each household that asks for them.
Each coupon can be used to defray the cost of one converter. Both the coupons
and the converter boxes should be available in January, 2008.

This
doesn’t sound like good news for the 20 million

U.S. households that get only
over-the-air TV, according to the NAB’s count. But if you go through the hassle
of getting a converter box, you may find that your picture quality has improved
a great deal.

Since TV
stations are already broadcasting digitally, the NAB was able to demonstrate
the technology with the prototype converter boxes in

New York City recently. Analog TV broadcasts
are almost useless there, because the signal from the

Empire

State

Building bounces between
other skyscrapers, interfering with itself. The picture on a regular TV set
connected to a rabbit ear antenna was very poor, with “snow” all over
the screen.

The
picture on a set that used a converter box to get digital broadcasts with the
same antenna was free of static, and looked as crisp as if it was playing a
DVD.

The
digital broadcast also contains some program information, so you will be able
to bring up a little window showing the name of the show you’re watching.

If you’re
getting a new TV, look for one that has a built-in digital tuner, also known as
an ATSC receiver. Sets that only have an analog tuner, also known as an NTSC
receiver, are being phased out of stores.