Countdown to the digital transition

Apex Digital TV converter boxes are displayed at a Best Buy store in Emeryville, Calif.


Tess Vigeland:If you haven't heard about the digital TV transition, then you probably don't watch much TV.

Public service announcements for the February switchover have been on the air for months, including warnings that your analog TV is about to get neutered:

[Segments from digital transition PSAs]

Maybe not the highest quality ads every produced, but the message is clear: Act now or no TV for you!

We've asked Sean Captain, senior technology editor at Popular Science, to fill us in on how the change from analog to digital is shaping up and what it might cost you. Thanks for joining us.

Sean Captain: Thank you.

Vigeland: So the conversion is a little over a month away. When people turn on their TVs on Feb. 17, who is not going to be happy about what they see?

Captain: Well, if you just have an analog television and an antenna, you're not getting cable or satellite, all you're able to pick up is a kind of signal that is no longer being transmitted, which is an analog TV signal, because starting on that date, with a few very small exceptions, everything broadcast is going to be in digital format and old TVs were designed before that format existed so they won't be able to read it.

Vigeland: So if you are one of those people, what will the screen actually look like? Is it going to be bug races or black or what?

Captain: You'll get snow most likely on an analog TV. There's another glitch as well that's worth mentioning. You might have an analog converter box, which is great, but if you don't have a strong enough antenna or you're not close enough to a broadcaster, you might not get a signal anyway. And the best way to tell that is if you look at your TV currently and you get a nice crisp picture, you'll probably be fine. But if you're getting the snow, the sort of double images, the ghosting, the erratic lines, it means you have a pretty weak analog signal and it's possibly it might be so week that the digital signal won't come in at all.

Vigeland: Now the government set up a voucher program more than a year ago. Remind us how that voucher system works.

Captain: Sure. And the vouchers are to purchase converter boxes. They're digital receivers that then take the signal and convert it to analog that an old TV can understand. They sell for about $60, some are as low as maybe $40, $45, and the vouchers are a $40 voucher. You can get two per household that apply to the cost of that.

Vigeland: And how is that system working so far?

Captain: Not perfect. First of all, it takes quite a while to get one. It's about six weeks to get your voucher, so actually at this point if you haven't got a voucher yet, you might be waiting a little while after the transition to get it. And on top of that, the fund is running out. They allocated about $1.34 billion for it and they're almost out of money on that one, so there's a possibility even if you apply now you could be waiting a while.

Vigeland: How many people out there are still using televisions with rabbit ears?

Captain: That's a hard number to figure out. Estimates that I've seen are about 20 million households their only TV or all of their TVs are just analog and then I've seen estimates about 15 million people may have cable, say, in the living room, but they have just an antenna TV maybe in the kitchen or bedroom or in the garage.

Vigeland: Well, I know one of those is one of our producers here at Marketplace, Bonnie. She's got a television with rabbit ears and, you know, she was saying she's probably just going to skip this thing all together; she doesn't pay for cable, she's not getting a converter box because she watches TV on the Internet.

Captain: Exactly. I mean, if you have a computer and you have internet access, you sort of have digital TV already. All the networks offer most of the programming for free. Netflix, for example. If you have Netflix you can watch online for free. You can download stuff from Apple iTunes. There's a lot of sources. And then there's some of the less than legal sources as well, which give you access to everything.

Vigeland: Right. And I'll assume that our producer does not take advantage of any of those, of course.

Captain: Of course not.

Vigeland: Alright. Sean Captain is senior technology editor at Popular Science magazine. Thanks so much for your help today.

Captain: Sure. Thank you.

Vigeland: By the way President-elect Barack Obama this week urged Congress to postpone the February 17th switch date. Stay tuned... while you still can.


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