Local Commentary

Jim Moran’s News Commentary

In less than a year — February 17, 2009, to be exact – what has been called the biggest change in television since the advent of color TV will occur. On that day, the major television networks will no longer broadcast in analog, switching for the first time to a solely digital-based transmission (also known as DTV).

DTV (not to be confused with high-definition television) is an innovative, over-the-air broadcasting technology that enables TV stations to provide a dramatically clearer picture and better sound quality. DTV can deliver more channels, high definition television (HDTV) for those with HD equipped TVs, and has the potential to transmit interactive video and data services in the future – something not possible through an analog signal.

In 2006, Congress passed legislation setting the transition date for network television to switch from analog to digital. A major driving factor in this decision is the communication problems our nation’s first responders are experiencing: police officers, firefighters and EMS technicians. Due to increasingly crowded airwaves, significant disruptions in these first responders’ communications networks are occurring on an alarming basis. The analog spectrum freed up by the coming transition will be largely allocated to our first responders, providing them clearer signals to more effectively coordinate and communicate in an emergency– perhaps saving more lives along way.

This is a major transition, but it shouldn’t be a cause for major concern. For most Northern Virginians, who watch TV via a cable or satellite providers (Comcast, Cox, DirecTV etc), this change will have no effect. If you are a cable or satellite subscriber, you will see no disruption in service.

However, there are some 12 million Americans who don't fall into this category — those who use an antenna to watch TV. For these people, a large percentage of which are senior citizens, their TVs will go dark on February 17, 2009, if they do not take action.

If you use an antenna to watch TV on a television purchased new prior to 2007, it’s probably a good idea to check whether your television has a digital tuner (the FCC began requiring all televisions sold in the U.S. be equipped with a digital tuner starting March, 2007). Most TVs have labels or markings on them to indicate whether they contain a digital tuner. Labels such as "Integrated Digital Tuner," "Digital Tuner Built-In," "Digital Receiver," "Digital Tuner," "DTV," or "ATSC," all indicate that you have a DTV, meaning it will continue to receive transmitted channels after the switch from analog to digital is carried out.

For people who’s TVs do not have a digital tuner, all is not lost. You can continue to watch television through an antenna by purchasing a converter box. The converter box will allow your TV to receive DTV transmissions via your antenna. Converter boxes can be found in local electronic retail stores (Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack etc). Costs for the converter range from $30 to $80, depending on the type of converter your television requires.

That’s not cheap. But I want everyone to be aware the government is assisting in the purchase of these converters. Every household in the country can apply for two, $40 coupons to purchase two converter boxes. To apply for your coupon, review coupon eligible converters, or find a retailer selling converter boxes near you, you can visit www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-DTV-2009.

If you know a family member, friend or neighbor who currently uses an antenna — particularly if they are elderly — I encourage you to share this information with them. The transition from analog to digital will be a non-event for the vast majority of Americans. While cable and satellite subscription services have become ubiquitous in American society, a significant minority of households use an antenna. These households will need to purchase a converter box or new TV in the coming year – and some may need a little assistance making the transition.