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Digital TV arrives: what you need to know

Finally, after years of waiting, a four-month extension and hyped-up attempts to sell everything from cable TV service to new antennas, the switch to digital television comes at midnight Friday. • For most of you, this change won't mean much. According to Nielsen Media Research, just 3.5 million households remain completely unready for the elimination of analog broadcast TV signals. • But it bears repeating: If you have cable or satellite service, you don't need to do anything. If you get television through an antenna, you either need a TV capable of displaying digital signals or a digital-to-analog converter. • To get a sense of exactly what people are up against, I tested two versions of a digital-to-analog converter: the Digital Stream DTX9950 ($59.99) and Zenith's DTT901 ($60). Both are eligible for the government's $40 coupons to help cover costs. Here's what I learned:

You may not need cable.

Both units produced a picture clearer than most analog broadcasts, with access to subchannels offered by local broadcasters. NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8, for example, has 8 Prime, a secondary channel with old TV shows, while WMOR-Ch. 32's offers a lineup of old movies on its This TV channel. There are about 30 channels available in all, with PBS stations WEDU-Ch. 3 and WUSF-Ch. 16 offering four channels each.

You may not get all the channels you're used to.

Both units had trouble picking up all the area's broadcast channels using a $30 RCA digital flat antenna. At work, I couldn't access WFLA or WTSP-Ch. 10's digital channels; at home, the access was better, but still problematic. I also got different sets of signals by placing the antenna at the front of my house or the back (digital signals don't travel as well as analog signals and may come from different transmitters). I did, however, pick up Sarasota ABC station WWSB-Ch. 40 and Fort Myers' NBC affiliate WBBH-Ch. 2, so there's that.

Converter models matter.

The Zenith unit offered a better overall experience: cleaner picture, better onscreen graphics, a user-friendly onscreen programming guide and more channels captured. The Digital Stream, provided by RadioShack, took longer to warm up, captured fewer channels and took longer to scan for channels. And though digital frequencies generally come in or don't — no snowy picture — you can get pixilated or frozen pictures if the signal isn't strong enough.

Broadcasters need more digital offerings.

The PBS stations have led the way here, with kids' channels, Spanish-language channels and legislative channels among their digital offerings. But Fox station WTVT-Ch. 13 just rebroadcasts its regular signal on its secondary digital channel, while WTSP and Tampa ABC station WFTS-Ch. 28 have 24-hour weather channels (zzzzzz!). Broadcast DTV could be a cheaper cable alternative for viewers; spend $100 for a converter and set-top antenna and you're set. But the programming needs to be there.

TiVo

The 63rd Annual Tony Awards, 8 tonight, WTSP-Ch. 10: Host Neil Patrick Harris has a tough act to follow in gleaming, now-Oscar host Hugh Jackman. But if you only know Harris for Doogie Howser and How I Met Your Mother, you're in for a surprise; his work in quirky fare such as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle shows he has a talent for spoofing showbiz and himself, when necessary.

Z-Rock, 11 tonight, IFC channel: This is the best, most explicit TV comedy you've never heard of, centered on the travails of a group that plays kids parties by day and rock clubs by night. Don't be fooled: This is a bawdy, in-your-face comedy, picking up its second season with the band broken up after the drummer was caught on videotape sleeping with the wife of a record company mogul. Toss in cameos from Joan and Melissa Rivers and Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider, and you have a little slice of seedy, TV heaven.

Pushing Daisies series finale, 10 p.m. Saturday, WFTS-Ch. 28: In a cruel twist, ABC is broadcasting the remaining episodes of several wonderful series it killed this year, including Pushing Daisies (Lee Pace, above) and The Unusuals. It mostly means fans get to simmer, watching shows they love get better, knowing there's no future, like a bad Lifetime movie. No finale will be more bittersweet than Daisies, an eccentric confection with the misfortune of airing on the network that kept According to Jim alive for eight years.

the list

The wonderfully catty gossip columnist for E! online, Ted Casablanca, recently held a vote on his blog The Awful Truth for showbiz's Most Awful Celebrity of All Time.

Here are the finalists. Guess who came in first and second place:

Nadya "Octomom" Suleman: Took fertility drugs when she already had six kids.

Naomi Campbell: Volatile model has assaulted underlings with a cell phone, more than once.

Michael Jackson: Duuh!

Rihanna: Sings songs about her independence, than takes back boyfriend who beat her bloody.

Spencer Pratt: Can't stop looking like a creep on The Hills, even with the best editing MTV provides.

Gwyneth Paltrow: Is a movie star married to a rock star, but can't help squabbling with Iron Man 2 co-star Scarlett Johansson.

Winner: Spencer Pratt, left.

Second place: The Octomom.

Digital TV arrives: what you need to know 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 4:31am]
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