A change in the way TV is broadcast will expand current choices on what is seen as traditional TV, although viewers will be required to make upgrades. Traditional TV broadcasts - called analog - will cease to exist as of Feb. 17, 2009 as mandated by an act of the United States Congress in 1996. TV broadcasters are required to begin transmitting digitally, and will require viewers using old televisions to either obtain a converter box or purchase new digital TV sets (DTV).
"This change has nothing to do with those who currently have cable or satellite TV," said Bart Forbes, spokesperson for the National Telecommunication and Information Agency. "This only affects folks who watch over-the-air broadcasts - TVs that use rabbit ears or a housetop antenna."
Forbes said the change has several key benefits. Viewers will likely see a vastly expanded choice of programming, perhaps up to six times the existing channels, while former analog TV channels will be converted for the use by public-safety agencies, such as ambulances and fire and police departments.
The Federal Communications Commission also wants to auction off certain channels for telecommunications providers like Verizon.
Perhaps even more significant to local taxpayers, the federal government is auctioning the new digital channels to broadcasters, bringing in as much as $19.5 billion into federal coffers. In the past, broadcasters operated the analog channels with no fee to the federal government.
Although originally slated to take effect in 2006, broadcasters were slow to meet the mandates of the law, and in 2005, Congress passed an extension until Feb. 17, 2009, Forbes said.
Right now, your old "analog" TV uses 1940s technology that transmits signals by radio waves.
In contrast, digital TV (DTV), available just in the last few years, uses binary language like your computers do. This theoretically enables better picture and sound quality, more programming choices, and interactive capability.
But that doesn't mean you'll have to throw out all of your TV sets next year. There are several ways to convert them.
Buy a converter by using a gov't voucher
Consumers may buy a TV converter box, which plugs into your old TV set. While they cost $40 to $70 at most electronics stores, the government is giving away vouchers for $40 off (to get one, see sidebar). Two vouchers are available per household.
"These look like debit cards, but they can only be used once," Forbes said. "We are encouraging people to get both discount cards. If they don't use both, they can give one to a friend who might have lost one."
Unfortunately, the federal coupon or rebate program's limits do not address nursing homes and other multiple dwellings, an oversight Congress is hoping to rectify when it comes back into session in September.
Forbes said the law affects about 21 million households nationwide. To date, about 6.6 million people have purchased converter boxes. In New Jersey, the federal government has received about 322,000 requests for coupons as of the end of July.
Forbes said each retailer must train its sales people on the use of the coupons, and how to process them.
The downside is that some existing remote controls will not work with the converters. Ask your local salesperson before buying.
Andrea Parra, the store manager at Radio Shack in Jersey City's Newport Mall, said recently that her store had just sold out of converter boxes and would be getting more.
"There's a rush to buy them," she said.
The Radio Shack model sells for $60, but most customers come with their $40 coupons, she said.
In North Bergen, Bhaves Amin, the manager of Circuit City on Kennedy Boulevard, said the Zenith model also retails for $60.
He said they get 20 or 30 converters in stock each week, "and we sell out every week."
Get cable for all TVs
While the federally-mandated new boxes do not affect cable or satellite TV users, consumers can use their old TVs if they get certain kinds of cable, satellite TV, or another pay service for that particular TV. However, this only applies to the particular TV that is hooked up to the cable box. According to Cablevision, the company that supplies cable to most of Hudson County, it costs $6.50 to add additional TVs in a household to their service.
In addition, cable subscribers who do not have a cable box may need new DTV equipment to view DTV programming in digital format. These boxes, however, do not qualify for the federal rebate program.
Ask your cable provider what you will need and when.
Satellite subscribers may need new DTV equipment in order to receive and view high definition (HDTV) programming. HDTV in wide-screen format provides the highest resolution and picture quality of all digital broadcast formats. Ask your satellite company what you will need and when.
VCRs, DVDs, and camcorders will still work on new digital TV sets, but not in high definition.
Buying a new TV
If you buy a new TV, it will either come ready to receive the new signals, or it will include a warning. That's because on March 1, 2007, the FCC prohibited the manufacture of devices with analog tuners, unless they also contain digital tuners.
If retailers sell existing TVs with analog tuners, the equipment must carry a warning that the tuner will require a converter box.
The switchover has been called the most significant change in TV broadcasting since signals were converted from black and white to color in the 1940s.
Until the transition to DTV is complete next year, televisions will continue broadcasting on both their digital and analog channels.
Among the Web sites that provide valuable information on the change-over are the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), www.dtv.gov, and the DTV Transition Coalition, www.dtvtransition.org, an organization of business, trade, and industry groups whose mission is to inform consumers of the switch.
Get your $40 vouchers
As of Jan. 1 of this year, the government made available $40 vouchers for the digital converter boxes. However, each household can only apply for two vouchers, and the government program has a cap on its funding, so it is best to apply early before they run out.
The vouchers are accepted at many electronics and department stores.
Analog sets that are connected to converter boxes will display digital broadcasts, but not necessarily in the full, original digital quality.
Until March 31, 2009, you can request a coupon while supplies last in the following ways:
* Visit DTV2009.gov
* Visit DTV.gov and click on "Converter Box Coupon Program"
* Call the coupon program 24-hour hotline at 1 888-388-2009
* Mail a coupon application to P.O. Box 2000, Portland, OR 97208-2000
* Fax a coupon application to 1-877-388-4632
* Deaf or hard of hearing callers may dial 1-877-530-2634 (English/TTY) or 1-866-495-1161 (Spanish/TTY) 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST Monday-Friday