Reader Question: Obsolete TVs?

Q: I’ve heard that in the near future, only those who have HDTV will be able to receive a tv signal and all the old tvs will be obsolete. This can’t be true, can it? Please advise.
Robert Romine

A: This is probably the question that I am asked second-most often. (The most frequent question is “Which HDTV should I buy?”) The sad part is that this question clearly demonstrates how much confusion is out there about digital television and HDTV, and it’s persistence is a measure of how ineffective the industry has been in explaining the situation. So I’ll keep answering the question as best I can.

Here is the basic fact; in February 2009, television broadcasters in the United States will cease broadcasting analog television signals. The only broadcast television signals at that point will be digital. (Satellite broadcast signals are already digital.)

Okay, that seems straightforward enough, but there’s still room for confusion. For example, not all the content broadcast by digital signals is HDTV, which means that it is not in high definition. Most television stations are already broadcasting digital signals in addition to their analog signals, and most of this content is broadcast in standard definition, even though it is digital.

What does this mean? It means that you won’t need an HDTV starting in February 2009; all you’ll need is a television with a digital tuner if you want to receive terrestrial broadcast television signals. Yes, you could buy a new television; manufacturers are required to include digital tuners — sometimes called ATSC tuners — in all their models as of next March. However, you can also buy a separate tuner that will connect to your existing television set. Your set won’t be able to display the full detail of HDTV, but you will be able to view digital broadcasts. And the federal government will have a program that will help consumers pay for such devices by the February 2009 deadline. I expect that the cost of a digital tuner will end up being $25 to $50, and possibly even less.

And keep in mind that this only matters if you use an antenna to get your television programming. If you use a satellite dish or a cable connection, you will be unaffected by the February 2009 cutoff. Less that 25% of the U.S. homes will be impacted by the end of analog broadcasts.