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What Transition?

Updated 11/18/07

The end is in sight for TV as we know it. Out with the old and in with the new!

This transition is not about some fancy "feature" on new TV sets. The U.S. is transitioning to a whole new and fundamentally different TV standard. New TVs, new station transmitters, new cameras, new everything!

Right now, both old and new are co-existing--you can use either the old analog signal or the new improved digital signal (if you have a TV with a "digital" receiver built in its circuits). But analog will disappear on February 17, 2009, if not before. Only the new digital standard will remain in effect.

The exception to this is that low-power, Class A, and translator stations can continue broadcasting after that date until some future date to be determined by the FCC.

(Because of the difficulties in putting up a full-power digital transmission facility while the full-power analog facilities are still in place (e.g. the antenna), many broadcasters are likely to reduce or shut-down their analog signals early, perhaps up to a year early. I'll keep you posted.)

The old is square, low-resolution, and analog; the new is digital widescreen, high-definition, with multi-channel sound. High-definition TVs are capable of displaying five times the detail of standard-definition sets.

And I'm not talking about cable TV's transition to digital (the way they get the same old picture to your house). We're talking national television standards here!

This is not an evolutionary change, but is truly revolutionary, and most people do not appreciate its scope. The television standard that we have all grown up with is called "NTSC" (National Television Systems Committee). It's been around since the early-1940s, and since the early-1950s in its current color TV incarnation. It is an analog system, as is the European "PAL" system.

It's not only the U.S. that's getting a new digital TV standard. Europe and the rest of the world are in on it--everyone is getting a new digital TV standard! The efficiencies with digital are simply too great to stay analog, the technology is here to support it, and the resulting digital picture and sound quality is spectacular.

Unfortunately, everyone could not agree on a common standard, so the world will have several different digital TV standards. (Some national politics involved in that.)

But in all cases the new digital TV standards will mean everyone needs new equipment. The new U.S. digital standard--"ATSC" (Advanced Television Systems Committee)--is incompatible with the old NTSC standard. Which means your old TV will not work with the new standard! Hence the need for a transition.

The new digital television standard was developed and promoted by the TV industry starting in the late 1980s, and was formally adopted by Congress in 1996. At that time Congress declared that the transition would run until the end of 2006. Because the various TV industries were slow to make the necessary investments, this date has been delayed.

Between 1996 and the end of the transition, the technical details of the new standard were worked out, network broadcasters have been obtaining new cameras and broadcast equipment, and consumers are buying new digital television sets. (Unfortunately, they also continued to buy millions of the old cheap analog TVs.)

TV stations have continued their analog (NTSC) broadcasts during the transition period so that people could still watch their favorite shows on their analog TV sets. But the stations are also broadcasting their program line-up on a separate digital channel that can only be viewed on the new digital television sets.

At the end of the transition, all NTSC broadcasts will be shut off. Existing NTSC television sets will no longer be able to receive any television signal--their screens will go dark. That is, unless a cable or satellite service converts the digital signal to analog for their legacy NTSC customers.

People who rely on an antenna for free over-the-air network programming will either have to buy a new digital TV or buy a digital-to-analog converter box (which contains a digital TV receiver). The government has decided to subsidize these converter boxes for people who want to keep using their analog sets to receive over-the-air broadcasts. The subsidy will be $40 per box, and the boxes are expected to sell for about $60 (before the subsidy is subtracted) early in 2008. Subsidy coupons will be distributed by April 1, 2008, although you will be able to request them beginning January 1 (or even a week before that--TBA).

Digital-to-analog converter boxes are still in development; they are not in the stores yet.

Old analog TVs (with the squarish screens) therefore can be adapted to display a converted digital picture, but that picture will never have the improved high-definition quality. The new widescreen programming will be presented with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen (letterboxed), or with the sides of the widescreen picture chopped off (viewer chooses which). Because of broadcaster reluctance to adopt Active Format Description (AFD) instructions in their digital signals right away, 4:3 TVs may display "postage stamp" pictures, that is, the picture surrounded by black bars on all four sides. Not a nice thing.

The FCC has established rules requiring that new TVs have digital tuners built in. This requirement kicked in beginning March 1, 2007. Retailers, however, may still sell these analog TVs from their existing stocks, and as of July 2007, there were still small analog TVs for sale.

Manufacturers will be allowed to build TV sets without the new standard's widescreen display, nor do digital TVs have to be capable of displaying high-definition programming.

"Digital" can be either standard-definition with 480 vertical lines of resolution or full-specification high-definition with 1080 lines ("Full-HD"). There is also a lower quality of "high-definition" that has only 720 lines, or less than half the pixels (or screen detail/resolution) of full-specification HD. I call this middle 720 line resolution "HD-lite"--it's fine for smaller TVs.

There has been a lot of talk in the government about the need for consumer education, but the TV industry has successfully rebuffed attempts to require warning labels for new analog TVs (until 5/25/07, when "Consumer Alert" labels were required). Similarly, TV broadcasters have been reluctant to put up public service announcements telling consumers about the transition to digital TV, because many TV stations have been late in upgrading their equipment to transmit in high-definition.

On February 8, 2006, the day that the DTV Transition Act of 2005 finally became law, the end of the DTV transition was finally established as February 17, 2009, pushed back from the proposed 12/31/08 date so as not to interfere with holiday season TV shows and the SuperBowl.