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Is your set ready for digital TV?

June 01, 2008|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

In less than nine months, old-fashioned broadcast television will go the way of typewriters, vinyl records and 35-millimeter film. Like just about everything else, it's getting upgraded to digital.

If you haven't been paying attention -- and who could blame you, it's not even football season and the government-mandated change won't take place until after next year's Super Bowl -- broadcasters, federal officials and consumer advocates say it's time to start tuning in to the digital TV transition.

You might need an upgrade too. And while there's still plenty of time before the analog signals are turned off forever Feb. 18, you may not want to wait until the last minute.

That old adage could apply to you come February: No TV until you do your homework.

About 20% of U.S. households -- 1 million or so in the Los Angeles area -- rely on antennas to receive TV signals, and if they don't have sets with digital tuners, they won't be able to pick up the digital signal. Viewers with new digital TVs or special converter boxes for older sets also may need to upgrade their antennas because of a unique aspect of digital television: The signals that produce crystal clear pictures can be tougher to pick up than the old analog waves, particularly around L.A.

Even if you don't use an antenna, you might need to make some changes. Some cable and phone company TV customers who plug the wire directly into their sets might need to get a set-top box or adapter from their provider.

"The picture is becoming clear that there is more cost to consumers because of this transition than originally anticipated," said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

The government is trying to help, offering two $40 coupons per household to help buy converter boxes for older analog TVs. Those coupons are going fast now that converter boxes have hit the shelves of major retailers. Nearly 15 million coupons have been requested since the program began Jan. 1 -- and the government is going to hand out only 33.5 million.

There's another reason not to wait. It can be confusing to figure out exactly what you need to do to keep your TV from going dark.

Even just figuring out if you have a digital TV can be tricky. There are five different acronyms and several other labeling terms.

Further complicating matters, most homes have more than one TV set. And different sets often receive programming in different ways. Satellite TV is all digital, so there's no problem. Most people with cable TV also don't have to worry because the major providers have committed to continue offering analog versions of broadcast stations.

Some cable companies may decide to upgrade their entire systems to digital and could require people who plug the wire directly into their TV to rent a set-top box, though the two major cable companies in the Los Angeles area, Time Warner Cable Inc. and Charter Communications Inc., have promised they wouldn't do that for at least three years.

It will be another story for viewers of Verizon Communications Inc.'s FiOS TV service. Right now, customers can hook up extra TVs without a set-top box and get a limited number of channels, but that will change in September in California as the system goes completely digital, said Verizon spokeswoman Heather Wilner. The company will offer free digital adapters to people who don't want to rent additional set-top boxes.

Many a pay TV subscriber has an old TV somewhere in the house that uses an antenna. A study released last week by the Nielsen Co. found that a quarter of Los Angeles-area households and 12.6% nationwide had at least one set that couldn't pick up digital broadcasts. And about 13% of L.A.-area homes and nearly 1 in 10 nationwide wouldn't be able to watch TV at all if the signals already were all digital because they only get over-the-air TV.

U.S. officials, along with broadcasters, cable companies, consumer electronics manufacturers and advocacy groups are trying to educate the public about the transition through public service announcements, community meetings and even brochures stuffed into mailings from some government agencies.

But once you get your digital TV or converter box, you still might not be set for Feb. 18.

Charles A. Wolfe, 65, a retired software engineer who lives in Sylmar, got his $40 coupon and used it to buy a $60 converter box at Radio Shack. He depends on over-the-air TV and has found digital no big improvement. He used to receive seven analog broadcast stations through the antenna on his roof. Now he only gets three digital stations, even after he spent $38 on a box to boost his antenna's power.

"When they do come in, there's a relatively nice picture," he said of the new digital stations. "But if I can't receive them all, the transition is more of a joke than anything."

With digital, there are no weak pictures or static; you either get a strong enough signal for a sharp picture, or nothing at all. It's known as the digital "cliff effect," and Los Angeles, with its huge size and hilly terrain, is one of the areas most at risk for it, according to a study by Centris, a market research firm. Overall, about 9.2 million U.S. households with antennas could have problems receiving digital TV signals.

"No one mentions that you may have to upgrade your antenna," said Barry Goodstadt, Centris' senior vice president. He's advising people to get their digital TVs or converter boxes early so they can figure out if they also need a new antenna. The National Assn. of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Assn. have a website, Antennaweb.org, that shows which stations' signals you can get at your address and offers help choosing an antenna.

It's just one more homework assignment if you want to pass the digital TV test this winter.

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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