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National Zoo photo by Jessie Cohen

Coupons Arrive Via Junk Mail; Lots More

March 9, 2008

My converter box coupons arrived last Monday in a non-descript white envelope marked "Presorted Standard Mail." That's junk mail class. A few months ago the NTIA/IBM people were saying they were going to make the envelope distinctive so that people wouldn't throw out the envelope with the rest of their junk mail. Oh really?

But never mind--I immediately drove to Best Buy and bought a converter box. Fantastic! (more below)

Also on Monday the FCC released its long-awaited Consumer Education Initiative. It imposes baseline requirements, but gives commercial TV stations two plans to choose from; non-commercial stations have a third option. (more below)

Also on Monday FCC Chairman Martin and Commissioner Copps exchanged letters on a suggestion to run a mock trial end-of-transition in one city or town before the actual end-of-transition for the whole country -- just to see what happens. (more below)

Also on Monday comments were due on the FCC's further notice of proposed rulemaking on the cable carriage of broadcast channels to clear up a number of issues left over from their last (recent) rulemaking on the same subject. Among the issues: whether cable systems with fewer than 5000 customers will get a blanket exemption from carrying digital/high-definition signals after the transition ends, and how digital programming will be formatted for display on 4:3 TVs. (more below)

Best Buy has partnered with DirecTV in an interesting new promotion. Buy an HDTV and Best Buy will subsidize your DirectTV bills. Good deal or trap? (more below)

According to a prediction by Sony CEO Glascow, Blu-ray player prices will drop as low as $300 by the end of this year and down to $200 next year. As always, you'll still be able to spend a lot more for the higher-end stuff.

And, Pioneer reportedly is going to start having the Panasonic folks build plasma panels for them. Pioneer has been losing boat-loads of money and needed to do something to stop the bleeding.


$40 coupons and a new toy!

Two sheets of paper came in the envelope with the coupons. The plastic coupons were attached to the first, which also included a list of local participating retailers. The second sheet had information about refunds, frequently asked questions about the coupon program, and a list of eligible converter box models. Same thing on the other side except in Spanish.

The stack of converter boxes at Best Buy was still located in the same out-of-the-way aisle as it was a week earlier, and looking untouched.

I grabbed one and took it to the cashier at the front of the store, without saying anything about the coupons. When he scanned the bar code, a notice appeared on his screen prompting him to ask if I had a coupon. He swiped the coupon which deducted the proper $40, and I was on my way.

The box I bought was Best Buy's store brand -- Insignia -- made by LG. LG sells the same box under its own Zenith brand, and both boxes are believed to contain LG's highly regarded 6th generation digital receiver chip. I intend to also buy and test the RCA DTA-800B and the upcoming Samsung box when those become available.

The Insignia converter box is very small (teaspoon for scale). The remote is very small, feather-weight, made of thin plastic, and uses only one AAA battery.

I have a 22-year-old 27" Sony monitor (no video tuner or audio capability), and have used various VCRs as tuners over the years. An A/V receiver is required for sound. The DTV converter box is a perfect complement for the monitor.

It took about four minutes to hook up the box, only because my power strip was buried in a mass of cables behind my component rack. I plugged the antenna cable into the back of the box, along with the three (yellow, red, and white) composite cables from my A/V receiver, and that was it.

I turned on the box and prompts on the screen took me through the short set-up process. The receiver scanned for viable digital channels and found 20, including all of the subchannels. (It doesn't look for analog channels, of course. I had been getting nine watchable analog channels before this.) Perfect pictures for all of the digital channels -- really awesome compared to the analog versions.

I'm 35 miles away from the commercial stations' transmitters, in a ground-floor apartment surrounded by buildings and trees -- a difficult location. The PBS transmitter is much closer. I have a large outdoor UHF antenna (Channel Master 4228 8-bay bowtie) installed in my living room -- let's call it industrial art. I used that antenna first, with good results, although there were some occasional dropouts during heavy rain and windy conditions. Signal strength is best during the evening.

The box has a signal strength meter that gives a visual indication as well as a audible signal. It beeps faster when the signal is stronger, so you don't have to be looking at the screen when you adjust your directional antenna.

I also have an amplified rabbit ear antenna with an integrated UHF loop (Radio Shack 15-1878, $33). I was surprised to find that I could receive all the same digital channels with that antenna during normal atmospheric conditions. Lost was solid and perfect.

Since all the digital signals are UHF in my area, I keep the telescoping VHF "rabbit ears" collapsed.

Channel selection is one nice feature; because no analog channels are involved, when you push the first number(s) of the channel on the remote, a list of channels starting with that number appears on the screen. The first one is typically that station's primary digital channel (e.g. 17-1).

If you don't press any more buttons, that channel is selected without you having to push the "-1" suffix. You can use the up and down buttons to select another subchannel while the channel list is displayed. You can also use the channel "+" or "-" buttons to surf.

Nice menu graphics.

The "ZOOM" button is useful (also known as the aspect button on some digital sets). The aspect ratio or format selection feature is something that was required by the government for eligible converter boxes. Digital programming comes in 16:9 (widescreen) or the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio (square shape). All converter boxes are designed to be used with 4:3 analog TVs.

The NTIA requirement for eligible converter boxes was that consumers be able to select 1) a "letterbox" presentation (widescreen programming with black bars on the top and bottom), 2) a "centercut" presentation (widescreen programming with the left and right sides chopped off so the picture will fill the screen top to bottom, and 3) a non-defined "zoom" presentation.

With the LG/Insignia/Zenith box, repeated pushes of the ZOOM button cycle through these choices: 1) "Set By Program," 2) "Letter Box," 3) "Cropped" (same as centercut), and 4) "Squeezed" (fills 4:3 screen with all of a widescreen picture, but distorts it).

The "Set By Program" setting is perfect if the broadcast station has implemented the industry "Active Format Description" standard, intended to be used by 4:3 TVs receiving a digital signal. AFD is data transmitted with a program (or commercial, whatever) that tells the television set whether the program is formatted for a widescreen or a 4:3 display. The TV decodes the data and displays widescreen programming in letterbox format, and fills the screen with 4:3 programming.

The standard has been around for years, but unfortunately most broadcasters haven't implemented it. What they do instead for digital broadcasts is to add black bars on the sides of 4:3 programming as part of the picture, rather than sending the picture by itself with instructions for widescreen digital sets to add the vertical black bars (also known as "pillars").

What that means for people with 4:3 sets (either analog sets with converter boxes, or new digital sets with 4:3 displays) is the TV interprets the 4:3 picture with integral side black bars as a "widescreen" picture, and so adds black bars on the top and bottom.

The result is a small 4:3 picture surrounded all the way around by a black border presented on your larger 4:3 screen. It's really annoying and it's called "postage stamp" video. You can manually zoom in but you've already lost some resolution.

The Insignia converter box properly decodes AFD instructions and automatically avoids postage stamp pictures for those broadcast stations that have implemented AFD. In my area, that would only be the PBS channel and Univision. All the other broadcast networks have decided they have more important things to do with their engineering resources.

This issue also comes up with the cable carriage of broadcast channels story, below.

Anyway, if you want to see widescreen programming letterboxed on your 4:3 TV, and see 4:3 programming full screen, keep your finger on the ZOOM button for full manual control.

I'll have more converter box impressions next week.


The FCC finally released its consumer education rules on Monday. It first proposed rules back on July 21 last year. The new rules go into effect after they have been published in the Federal Register and after approval by the OMB (Office of Management and Budget). That should be within a month.

The rules require:

  • Broadcasters to air a mix of public service announcements (PSAs), crawls, and 30-minute education programs.

  • Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPDs - cable, satellite, etc.) to include DTV education notices in monthly bills.

  • Consumer electronics manufacturers to include information with TVs, DVRs, etc. explaining to consumers what effect, if any, the DTV transition will have on their use.

Commercial broadcasters are given two options for compliance; non-commercial (PBS, etc.) broadcasters have three options. All are free to do more than required.

The first option requires a mix of PSAs (at least 15 seconds duration) and crawls, with increasing frequency as the end of the transition approaches, that explain the various important issues of the transition and explain how viewers can find more information.

Specifically, a station must air one transition PSA, and run one transition crawl (at least 60 seconds duration), in every quarter of every day. The requirement increases to two PSAs and crawls per quarter per day on April 1, 2008, and to three of each on October 1, 2008.

The FCC rules require that at least one PSA and one crawl per day be run during primetime hours.

"Additionally, on-air outreach must contain no misleading or inaccurate statements." Gee, I wonder why they added that.

The second option is based on the National Association of Broadcasters' "Safe Harbor" plan. It requires a broadcaster to air an average of sixteen transition PSAs (at least 30 seconds long) per week, and an average of sixteen transition-related crawls, snipes, and/or tickers per week between 5:00 a.m and 1:00 a.m. One-fourth of these must air between 6:00 and 11:35 p.m.

As part of this plan, a 30-minute informational program on the digital television transition must be aired between 8:00 a.m and 11:35 p.m. on at least one day prior to February 17, 2009.

Beginning on November 10, 2008, all stations electing this option must begin a 100-Day Countdown to the full-power transition, with a 5-to-15 second graphic to remind viewers of the number of days before the end of the transition. Stations can choose from a variety of longer form options to communicate the countdown message.

The third option, available only for non-commercial stations (and suggested by the PBS lobby), requires the broadcaster to air 60 seconds per day of consumer education, in variable time slots, including at least 7.5 minutes per month between 6:00 p.m and midnight.

Beginning May 1, 2008, this requirement doubles, and beginning November 1, 2008, it increases again, to 180 seconds per day and 22.5 minutes per month between 6:00 p.m. and midnight.

Stations must also air a 30-minute informational program between 8:00 a.m. and 11:35 p.m. on at least one day prior to February 17, 2009.

Low-power stations: The FCC is urging (but not requiring) Low-Power, Class A, and Translator Stations to immediately begin educating their viewers about the delay in low power stations switching to digital. "For instance, such stations could notify their viewers that: (1) they are watching a low-power broadcast station that, unlike full-power stations, may continue to offer analog service after February 17, 2009, and (2) viewers who plan to purchase a converter box in order to view digital signals should buy a model with analog pass-through capability in order to continue watching that station."


FCC Commissioner Copps on Monday sent a formal letter to FCC Chairman Martin suggesting "some ways we could gain critical real-world experience" by actually switching a "small number of markets to all-digital service before the national transition date."

He compared the exercise to a Broadway show opening on the road "to work out the kinks before opening night."

He acknowledged the technical and practical challenges with planning and conducting such full-market trials, and offered that more limited DTV field tests (with volunteer households) could be conducted. Such tests could explore: DTV reception, antennas, cable/satellite coordination, DTV equipment installation, DTV equipment functionality, and consumer reactions.

He urged the creation of a public/private working group to do this.

Chairman Martin responded in his own formal letter: "I will ask our DTV Task Force to coordinate with various industry stakeholders to begin exploring how we could undertake many of these initiatives, including the more limited DTV field tests, in a timely fashion."

Didn't sound like he was eager to shut off a whole city's analog TV before the end. Running out of time, we are.


Industry comments are in on the FCC's current round of proposals for what and how digital broadcast signals must be carried on cable systems. Broadcasters versus cable industry. Always seems to be the consumer who loses, though.

The rules in this series are about "viewability" (cable subscribers being able to view all the broadcast channels) and "material degradation" (being able to view broadcast channels of the same quality as over-the-air viewers).

In this round the FCC is trying to decide these issues:

  • Channel placement: what number does the cable subscriber push to select a broadcast channel moving forward into the digital era?

  • Format: does the cable company or the broadcaster decide how a digital program is converted for presentation on TVs with 4:3 aspect ration screens?

  • Digital/HD: should smaller cable companies be exempted from digital and can cable companies downconvert broadcasters' high-definition programming to standard-definition for all of their customers if they do not offer any high-definition cable-channel programming?

Channel placement - The current rule is that cable systems have to give broadcasters the same number as their broadcast channel; that now applies to the broadcasters' analog channels. The FCC wants to know if cable systems can make the analog channel and the digital version the same number, even though they are two distinct signals.

Also, because cable systems use different compression formats that TVs cannot decode and downconvert from HD to SD (depending on what resolution they can display), cable companies apparently send out separate high-definition and standard-definition versions of broadcasters' HD programs (I suppose in case you don't have a newer set-top-box, or whatever -- I'm not a cable guy).

So the FCC also wants to know if the consumer can also select a broadcaster's digital HD channel and the SD version, both using the same channel number as the analog number. The equipment would have to figure it all out.

Broadcaster comments said the cable systems should be able to do that so the consumer would only have to remember the one channel number for each TV station. Push the same number for CBS on the living room HD set as for the bedroom SD set.

The cable companies said the analog channels get the station's regular number, but they should be able to assign various other numbers for the digital SD version and the digital HD version of the same station's programming. The subscriber will learn the new numbers.

Format - This takes us back to the "postage stamp" video I was talking about with my converter box and 4:3 screens.

Broadcasters in their comments say they should decide how digital programming should be formatted for cable distribution to consumers, or consumers should be able to select display format using their set-top-boxes (if the boxes have that capability). The cable people say they should be able to decide how to format each channel (center-cutting or letterboxing) for their subscribers with 4:3 TVs.

Both sides talk about the Active Format Description (AFD) standard, which would resolve this problem automatically. The standard was developed years ago and incorporated into the ATSC digital TV standard, but it hasn't been made mandatory for either broadcasters or cable systems. (it works for cable viewers as well as over-the-air viewers)

When the FCC raised the issue of AFD last year as a proposed requirement for the broadcasters, broadcasters argued that AFD should remain voluntary. The FCC went along with that.

But now the broadcast industry is pressing for the cable industry to embrace AFD, as providing "a superior viewing experience for cable subscribers."

The National Association of Broadcasters tiptoed around the issue (in view of its opposition to mandatory AFD last year), and suggested that the FCC "should encourage cable systems that downconvert signals at the headend to install AFD-capable equipment at the headend, while all-digital systems should ensure that subscribers' leased equipment can process AFD."

NBC was more direct: ". . . the Commission should require every cable system to implement or pass through AFD to the extent AFD is provided as part of the delivered programming of any local station carried by the cable system." They warn that "The failure by a cable operator to effectuate AFD (in the case of headend downconversion of an HD signal) or to pass through AFD (in the case of home downconversion) will mean that a consumer may lose important information or other video available to an over-the-air consumer."

NBC suggests that many broadcasters are, or soon will be, transmitting AFD data. Many? Cable commenters argued AFD was "not widely deployed," while acknowledging its benefits.

The consumer electronics industry also bears blame for the problem -- they successfully lobbied against early calls to ban analog TVs (with their 4:3 screens). The AFD standard existed then and the problems of "postage stamp" video with 4:3 TVs were known (I and others pointed them out in FCC filings). TV manufacturers still continue to produce many digital 4:3 TV models.

Unsuspecting consumers continue to buy them.

Most broadcasters are unlikely to voluntarily implement AFD; the same goes for the cable industry. The people who cannot afford or otherwise do not choose to buy widescreen TVs perhaps will be the losers.

Digital/HD - Probably the most significant issue for cable subscribers is whether smaller cable systems will get a blanket exemption from the dual-carry rule adopted a few months ago by the FCC. That "viewability" rule requires cable systems to provide a digital/HD signal for viewers with that capability, and a downconverted analog signal for their subscribers with analog TVs.

The FCC gave cable operators two ways of doing that. Either they could downconvert broadcasters' digital/HD signals at their headend and send out that analog signal to analog subscribers, or they could send out only the broadcasters' digital signal and give/lease to all of their analog subscribers a digital set-top-box that would downconvert that signal to an analog form their TVs could display.

Cable operators say the second alternative is not viable.

Those FCC dual-carry rules will go into effect at the end of the transition (not in effect now), and would expire after three years. That was the cable industry's plan, adopted by the FCC. The FCC intends to revisit the rules before the three years are up, with the idea of possibly extending the rules if enough subscribers still have analog TVs. The cable industry has been sounding like they expect the rules will not be extended. No more dual-carry.

The cable industry has been lobbying hard, and so far effectively, for a blanket exemption from the dual-carry rules for smaller cable systems. Right now the FCC says individual small, hard-pressed cable systems may apply for a waiver from the rules. The cable industry says that would be too burdensome.

Broadcasters are strongly opposed to any rules that would give small cable systems a blanket exemption from rules requiring digital/HD carriage.

The cable industry wants the exemption if any one of the following conditions is met:

  • the system has less than 552 MHz of bandwidth (channel capacity)

  • the system has fewer than 5000 customers

  • the system is all-analog

Obviously, if a system is exempt from carrying a digital signal, they will not carry any high-definition.

Some small systems do carry digital, but do not elect to carry high-definition (for various reasons). In its last rulemaking on this, the FCC was ambiguous on whether this would be permitted.

On one hand, they said cable operators had to carry broadcasters' high-definition programming in high-definition. On the other hand, they said (with respect to material degradation) that cable systems had to carry broadcasters' programming in at least as good quality as any other non-broadcast channel they carried. If nobody else gets HD treatment, then broadcast programming doesn't have to get it.

This rule was a hold-over from the old analog material degradation rules, which the FCC ended up adopting for the post-transition digital era. (They had proposed a new objective standard for digital broadcast signals, but ended up siding with the more relaxed cable proposal.)

So mandatory high-definition or not? The big cable systems will do it, and already are. The FCC needs to decide about the smaller systems.

With all of these proposals, the cable industry is crying that it's hanging on by a thread. They say it will take "considerable planning" to comply with the FCC's rules (without an exemption). They add: "With February 2009 fast approaching, the cable industry's orderly planning process necessitates a prompt grant of the requested relief."

Yeah. They've only known about the transition for twelve years now. These things take time, you know?


Best Buy and DirecTV have partnered in a promotion that would give consumers a discount on new DirecTV service when they buy an HDTV from Best Buy.

Buy an HDTV for $999 or more and get a $30/month credit for 12 months on DirecTV's HD Access, buy an HDTV for less than $999 and get six months of $30 credits, or simply activate a new DirecTV service and get three months of credits.

The press release also notes the importance of "using the right cables, adding surround sound and having the home theater professionally installed." All of which Best Buy will be happy to provide.

They say: "By offering to help pay a customer's DirecTV bill we're making a dramatic statement about the importance of connecting a television to the right source for HD programming. We want customers to have the same quality picture in their home that they saw in our stores."

Unfortunately, the quality of the HD demo loop run in Best Buy stores isn't very impressive. But the Best Buy statement is probably correct because DirecTV's high-definition quality is also not full-specification HD. The "HD" resolution you get from DirecTV is 1280 x 1080 pixels, which is good for a 720p TV, but not so much for a 1920 x 1080 HDTV.

Hardware and programming available separately, plus $9.99/month HD Access fee, and either an 18 or 24 month system lease/programming commitment required. In many DirecTV markets, local/broadcast network HD programming requires an over-the-air antenna. :)


Until next week . . . (hopefully not so much to report)

The Senate DTV transition status hearing that was postponed from February 14 has now been rescheduled for April 8.