The DTV transition: What you need to know

There are only eight months until the deadline to transition to digital broadcasting, so don't get left in the dark.

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By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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Beginning on Feb. 17, 2009 American households that use antennas to get reception will need a digital converter to receive programming.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Like the dramatic final scene of "The Sopranos," if you haven't adequately prepared for the transition to digital television on Feb. 17, 2009, your television screen could fade to black.

Although the majority of consumers, or 60%, know the DTV transition date, 54% do not understand why the transition is happening and what really needs to be done to prepare, according to a recent survey by Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500).

"It's the intricacies of the issue that we still need to talk people through," said a spokesman from the electronics retailer.

There are 13 million households that rely on over-the-air TV, according to Nielsen Media Research, and that means that there are a lot of TV watchers that need to tune in to what's going to happen.

Changing channels

Because of recent legislation, on Feb. 17 all broadcast television stations in the U.S. will stop broadcasting on analog airwaves and begin broadcasting only in digital.

Converting to digital television, or DTV, means broadcasters will be able to offer better picture and sound quality, in addition to multiple programming choices, called multicasting, and interactive capabilities.

Converting to DTV also frees up parts of the broadcast spectrum for other important services, such as public safety communications for police, fire departments and rescue squads.

Digital air waves

Since the transition only affects over-the-air television broadcasting, if you subscribe to cable or satellite services, you don't have to buy a new TV or converter box.

Consumers who rely on antennas (including rooftop antennas and rabbit ears) to get reception on their TV sets will need to make changes in some of the equipment they currently use. But there are a few other options to avoid being left in the dark.

The cheapest solution is to score a set-top converter box to convert digital broadcast signals into a format your TV can display. These converter boxes plug directly into your television and are available at electronic retailers such as RadioShack (RSH), Best Buy and Circuit City (CC, Fortune 500), and cost about $50 to $80 each.

To help with the DTV transition, the government established a Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program.

All U.S. households are eligible for two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of up to two, digital-to-analog converter boxes. To apply for a coupon online, go to https://www.dtv2009.gov/, but be aware that all coupons expire 90 days after they are issued. That means that consumers need to start shopping around for a converter box soon after they apply for a coupon.

Not all converter boxes are created equal. For example, some have special features, like an "analog pass-through" which allows reception for low-power stations with local religious programming.

Stay tuned

So once you've got the converter, can you expect the quality of what you're watching to improve?

Not quite. While the converter will allow you to watch digitally broadcast programming, your old analog television still may not deliver the video and audio performance improvements made possible by DTV. If you want to take full advantage of the better picture quality, then you should get a TV with a digital tuner.

That doesn't mean you have to run out and buy a fancy High Definition Television (HDTV). Upgrading to a less expensive Enhanced Definition Television (EDTV) or Standard Definition Television (SDTV) will also do the trick.

Keep in mind that beginning on Mar. 1, 2007, all television reception devices made in or imported into the United States were required by law to be outfitted with a digital tuner. So if your TV is relatively new you probably don't need to upgrade. Or check your owner's manual for the words "digital tuner," "digital receiver" or "DTV."

So chances are, you are already equipped for the transition, but if not, act now to avoid Tony Soprano's fate.  To top of page

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