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Got an old TV? Better get a new one

Still holding on to that rabbit-eared analog TV? Next year, it will be useless as is. TODAY gear and technology editor Paul Hochman explains how to (painlessly!) join the digital age of television.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

While I’ve always believed in being sober-minded about technology developments, today we can let loose a little. So here goes: “Your TV is dead! Long live your TV!”

Seriously. About a year from now, at midnight on February 18, 2009, all analog televisions in the United States using rabbit ears, or even a fancy, rotating roof antenna, will be deader than a doornail. More accurately, your analog TV will still turn on, but the picture will look like a wall of static. For those of you who aren’t sure if you have an analog TV or not, most so-called “tube” TVs are analog, while all LCD, plasma and DLP televisions are digital.

But to the point: The U.S. government has decided that the market has permanently moved to digital TVs, and that's right: As of last year, more than half of all TVs sold were digital, and companies like Sony have announced they won’t make any more tube TVs. Again, if you have an older-style TV — there are still well over 100 million of them out there in use — and you get your primary TV signal over the air from your local TV network, your TV picture is going to die, suddenly, in a year.

But don’t fret. And don’t write your congressman a nasty letter. Remember, the problem is for people who get their signal over the air. For example, if you currently have an analog tube TV, but you get your TV signal from a cable provider like Comcast or Cox or Cablevision, or a satellite company like Dish Network, you won’t be affected. It’s only the over-the-air analog signal that will cease in 2009.

And there’s even better news: If you have an old, beloved tube TV, and you still get your signals over the air for free (who doesn’t like free TV?), there are reasons to celebrate. First, while manufacturers don’t like to say it, your tube TV may well produce better picture quality than some of the cheaper flat-screen TVs out there: brighter colors, faster, sharper picture. Second, when that new, digital-only signal happens in 2009, all you will need to buy to keep getting free TV is an inexpensive “digital-to-analog converter box.” And the government will pay almost all of the cost. They’ll even send you a coupon.

Here’s how it works: A digital-to-analog converter box simply takes the new, all-digital signal that is sent out for free, over the air, and converts it to an analog signal that your old TV can understand. It’s simple — plug an outside TV antenna into the new box, and then run a cable out from the box to your TV. Presto — digital TV for free.

Well, almost free. The box itself, which can be found at almost all major electronics retailers, will cost between $50 and $70 and is made by a number of different manufacturers. Still mad at your congressman? Hold that call — the U.S. government is handing out coupons worth $40 to defray most of your cost. To get a coupon, just go to www.ntia.doc.gov, where the exotically named National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce is helping out with the Analog Converter Box Assistance Program.

Now if they’d only make their name easier to remember, that would be excellent television.

And one final note to you Luddites out there who insist on holding on to your analog tube TV because you believe you’ve just gotten free HBO: Think again. What you will be getting is “digital” TV (a signal made of 1s and 0s), not “high-definition” TV (also made of 1s and 0s, but many more of them, which make a prettier picture). In other words, you’ll be getting standard definition, not high-definition, digital television signals. You will almost certainly notice an improvement over your old analog signal, but you won’t be able to watch the TODAY show in high-def unless you pay for it.

Alas, free lunch has its costs.

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a “Fast Company” magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: