You've probably seen the commercials, read the inserts in your utility bill or watched the pleas from TV anchors and government officials everywhere: The digital television transition is coming. Get ready.
Still, with all that noise — and a promise by cable and satellite providers to keep broadcasting conventional analog television on their systems for years — there are an estimated 163,000 households in the Tampa Bay area and 8-million households nationally who may lose television on Feb. 17, when stations stop sending analog signals and only offer digital telecasts. If you already have a digital TV or cable, you're fine. If you're still fiddling with a rabbit ear or rooftop antenna, get ready to embrace change.
To help you figure it all out, we've cooked up this simple guide to the DTV transition, delivered in time to help you get ready for the new D-Day.
In the end, the TV set you save may be your own.
Option No. 2 Cable or satellite TV
Most cable and satellite companies have agreed to continue offering the same analog channels. But digital cable is not the same as digital TV. Digital cable refers to the technology used to provide more channels to cable subscribers; digital television is the programming transmitted over the air on digital frequencies. You don't need digital cable to receive television after the switch.
Here's a look at some popular companies and their fees — call or check Web sites for special pricing plans and extra features. Set-top boxes, especially for digital service, may cost extra:
Bright House networks: Offers basic service with 25 channels including major broadcast stations for $9.99 per month; standard service includes 75 channels, about $50 per month. Call toll-free 1-888-289-8988 or go to tampabay.mybrighthouse.com for more information.
Verizon fios tv: About 40 local channels are available for $12.99 per month. Essentials package, 295 channels and up to 14 high-definition channels, $47.99 per month; Extreme HD package, 348 channels and up to 45 HD channels, $57.99 per month. Prices do not include fees for set-top boxes, starting at an additional $7.99 per month. Call toll-free 1-800-483-4000 or go to verizon.com.
knology: Basic service, 21 channels, $17.95 per month; standard service, 81 channels, $45.95 per month, with an extra $10 per month for 140 digital channels. Call (727) 239-1000 or go to knology.com.
dish networks: Package of 20 local channels is $5.99 per month; America's Top 100 package of 100 standard cable channels such as USA Network and ESPN, $32.99 per month. Call toll-free 1-888-825-2557 or go to dishnetwork.com.
directv: Family package, 45 digital channels, 14 local channels and four music channels, $29.99 per month; Choice package, 150 channels and local stations, discounted from $52.99 per month to $29.99 for one year. Call toll-free 1-888-777-2454 or go to directv.com.
Option No. 3 A new TV
This may be the most expensive — and fun — alternative. If you don't have cable or satellite TV, make sure the TV has a tuner capable of receiving digital signals. Look on the unit for phrases such as "DTV tuner," "digital receiver" or "integrated digital tuner."
Bigger screens offer plasma or liquid crystal display (LCD), though LCDs are increasingly dominant. In the past, LCDs were less expensive, looked better in brighter rooms and had problems clearly showing quick movement; plasmas used more energy, handled dark pictures better and looked better from a wider angle. But recent advantages in LCD technology have smoothed those differences.
Name brands such as Sony and Panasonic cost more, claiming better reliability and ease of repair. Manufacturers are only now making battery-powered portable digital TVs for sportsmen and emergency/hurricane use.
TVs in stores are often calibrated to look best in the showroom. Try to bring a DVD you know to test the picture. And look for stores with a 30-day exchange policy, in case you're disappointed at home.
A few suggestions, courtesy of CNET.com and Consumer Reports:
A portable option: LCDDigital 84ATSC — An 8.4-inch television that receives analog and digital signals and can run on batteries. Be warned: Digital sets need much more signal than analog, so getting a picture may be a challenge. Price: $349.99.
Middle of the road: Vizio VO32L — 32-inch LCD with 720p display, picture-in-picture, nine picture modes and a host of inputs for computers, camcorders and gaming consoles. Price: $499.99.
The high end: Panasonic Viera TH-50PZ800U — 50-inch plasma TV with 1080p display, stereo sound, analog and digital tuner inside and a memory card reader. Shows motion well, bright colors and deep blacks and resists "burn in" when image stays on TV too long. Price: $2,499.95.
What to do with your old TV
Even after the digital switch, analog TVs will have uses: They can be connected to cable TV, gaming consoles and DVD players. Some charities, such as Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, have already adopted policies against accepting television sets for resale, because few consumers want to buy an old TV. Call any charity to make sure they'll accept it when you get there. Televisions, like computer monitors and old paint, are considered hazardous waste (thanks to material inside the picture tubes) and each county has its own procedures for collecting and disposing of such items:
Sets are accepted at the county's Household Electronics and Chemical Collection Center (HEC3) at 2990 110th Ave. N, St. Petersburg. The HEC3 is closed on Wednesdays, Sundays and county holidays; call (727) 464-7500 for hours and more information. Or go to pinellascounty.org/utilities/swapshop.htm. The county also has mobile collection events at schools and stores. Check the Web site for details.
In Hillsborough, three sites accept such waste, each open on a different Saturday of the month. On the first Saturday, the Northwest facility opens at 9805 N Sheldon Road; the second Saturday the South County building opens on Powell Road (east of U.S. 41, north of Big Bend Road); the third Saturday the East County facility opens at 6209 County Road 579 (north of Interstate 4, Exit 10). Call (813) 272-5680 or go to hillsboroughcounty.org/solidwaste.
Here, residents pay for disposal of TV sets at county sites: $5 for screens up to 36 inches and $10 for screens larger than 36 inches. Two sites accept them: West Pasco Resource Recovery, 14230 Hays Road, Spring Hill; and the East Pasco Transfer Station at 9626 Handcart Road, Dade City. Call (727) 847-8041.
Residents here have three facilities: the Northwest Solid Waste Management Facility, 14450 Landfill Road, Brooksville, (352) 754-4112; East Hernando Transfer Station, 33070 Cortez Blvd., Ridge Manor, (352) 540-6205; West Hernando Transfer Station, 2525 Osowaw Blvd. Go to hernandocounty.us.
Case studies One size doesn't fit all when it comes to switching to digital.
Quincy and Cara Ham
WHO ARE THEY? Both 26, Quincy is a math teacher for Seminole High and Cara teaches seventh grade at Azalea Middle. Living in St. Petersburg, the couple never had time to watch much TV, so they had no cable service and an analog set. But the digital switch loomed.
how did they switch? Out went the old fashioned, 24-inch RCA set a month ago, replaced by a gleaming, 47-inch, HD-ready Philips 3000 series TV, along with cable service and a digital video recorder.
the aftermath: Cara, about to have the couple's first child, figured she'd be home more and a TV upgrade made sense. Of course, now they're hooked on Grey's Anatomy and ESPN. "We were used to watching tiny, blurry people for so long, the change is amazing," she said, laughing. "We're still astonished by it, some days."
Sam and Barbara Sessa
WHO are they? Sam, 63, is a manager of gas transportation for TECO Peoples Gas; Barbara, 60, is city clerk for the city of San Antonio.
how did they switch? Already clocking a two-hour per day TV habit on their 32-inch analog set, they decided against getting cable, hopping online to get the government coupons for a digital-to-analog converter six months ago.
the aftermath: After avoiding cable for fear it would be too addictive, the Sessas found the enhanced picture and expanded channels of digital TV felt like an upgrade to cable, anyway. "The whole object of cable is that you get more options — well, we've got enough options right here," said Sam Sessa. "Now, if the NFL or NASCAR moves to cable, I'll have a problem."
WHO is he? Hastings, 51, is a professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
how did he switch? Hastings, who worries that most TV is damaging to viewers, hasn't really switched yet. His converter, bought in July, still sits in a box. Instead, Hastings keeps up with a handful of shows by watching episodes online on his MacBook laptop.
the aftermath: At some point, Hastings expects to hook up his converter just to stay connected, however precariously, to the rest of the TV-watching world. But for now, he's content to get his fix of The Daily Show, 60 Minutes and Saturday Night Live through his laptop's 13-inch screen. "I know the revolution will not be televised, but snippets of it will," said Hastings, explaining why he hasn't just junked his TV set. "I just worry about the effect of too much TV . . . It makes me want to consume too many things."
Option No. 1 Converter box
What is it? The cheapest way to join the DTV revolution is through a converter box, which translates digital frequencies through a standard antenna for an analog set. Viewers may notice a better image and wider channel diversity, but digital frequencies don't travel as far as analog signals and may be transmitted from a different location.
So you may see a different channel lineup when you plug your regular antenna into the converter (digital signals should come through standard antennas), which should be plugged into your analog TV.
Some converters have onscreen program guides similar to cable and satellite TV; some also receive analog signals for low-power TV stations that may not go digital. And Dish Network announced last month the first Digital Video Recorder/Digital TV converter combo — allowing viewers TiVo-like recording capability without satellite or cable service.
where do i get it? Most major electronics retailers have converters in stores and online. The government will give each household two $40 coupons for purchasing a converter box; only one coupon can be used for each converter.
Request the coupons at dtv2009.gov or by calling toll-free 1-888-388-2009.
how much will it cost? With most converters priced from $40 to $70, the coupons could cover the cost of two converters (some retailers say the lower-priced converters are growing scarce, and the coupon program could exhaust funding by February, so move quickly).
Bottom line: This option is only for you if you don't have cable or satellite TV service or a television capable of receiving digital signals through an antenna.