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Consumers have a year to prepare for digital TV

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Michael Swanke just bought his first digital TV
Michael Swanke of Minneapolis bought his first digital TV last week. He wants a bigger set, though.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

The switch to digital TV will be an especially big deal in Minnesota because about a quarter of households rely on antennas to receive TV signals. As it now stands, the digital switch-over could leave hundreds of thousands of Minnesota households unable to tune in to TV broadcasts.

The final, full transition to digital TV - now a little more than a year away - won't hit all viewers equally. Cable and satellite TV subscribers with analog TVs should not be bothered by the digital switch-over. Also, people who have TVs that can receive digital broadcasts will not have trouble. 

However, if you only have an analog TV and the set is only hooked up to an antenna, what can you expect when you turn on your TV on February 17, 2009?

About a half-million Minnesota households get all of their TV signals over the air. And if they want to continue to watch TV in 2009, they're going to have to make some changes.

They have three choices: Buy a digital TV; subscribe to a satellite or cable TV service, or pick up a converter box. The box will convert digital broadcasts into signals that are viewable on analog sets.

Digital TV ownership is rising fast
Americans will have about 85 million digital TVs in their homes by the end of the year.
MPR Graphic/Martin Moylan

Though the digital deadline is still about a year away, it's very much on the minds of consumers shopping for TVs this holiday season.

"I would say 50 percent of the people know about it," says Arthur Nunez, a salesman at the Richfield Best Buy. "They know that in 2009, they should be switching to a digital signal."

It's expected that about half of American households will have at least one digital TV by the end of the year. That works out to 85 million TVs. Santa will be delivering millions of them this month, it seems.   "I want one of the big ones," laughs Michael Swanke of Minneapolis, as he eyes a great wall of digital TVs at Best Buy's Richfield store.

Dozens of sets stretch across the store's back wall.

For now, Swanke is settling for a 22 inch digital TV. But he sees the February 2009 digital switch-over nudging him toward buying a big-screen high-definition digital TV.  He doesn't think he'll be long satisfied with the picture quality he's gets from a bigger analog set connected to a cable TV provider.  And he suspects the images produced by a converter box will be disappointing.

"Who knows how well that picture quality is going to be after it goes through a conversion?" he says.

Actually, it should be better.  

Michael Sherman is general manager of KTSF-TV in San Francisco. Earlier this month he had a chance to see how converter boxes work while at a workshop on the digital TV conversion. He viewed a an analog TV using a standard antenna and another set connected to a converter box.

"The analog reception with rabbit ears was your typical snowy poor picture," he says. "But with the other set, taking the digital through the converter box, it was a noticeably cleaner signal."

Minnesota is  state where the stakes are high in this transition

Steadily falling prices for digital TVs are putting more and more consumers in the market for the sets. Many big screen digital TVs are now selling for well under $1,000. Yet, they're still not cheap. But prices are at a point where many people are deciding it's time to retire or semi-retire their old sets and buy new ones. 

It'll likely be a few months before stores start selling  the converter boxes. They'll probably cost $50 to $70. But starting January 1, every U.S. household can apply for two coupons each worth $40 toward the purchase of a converter. 

Initially, the federal government will distribute about 22 million coupons. Once that supply runs out, there'll be another distribution of coupons. But they'll be reserved for people who do not subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service.

Minnesota TV stations will be telling viewers about those boxes --and coupons-- again and again in coming months. 

"Minnesota is a state where the stakes are high in this transition," says Jim du Bois of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association. "We want to make sure that everybody knows what's happening and they know what they need to do. We're talking about the possibility of some roadblock television shows, meaning a TV show that is aired on all channels simultaneously."

Most Minnesota television stations are already broadcasting digitally. 

Denny Wahlstrom general manger of KEYC-TV in Mankato says the move to digital is good for broadcasters and viewers.

"It's been very costly for television stations to go digital," he says. "We're talking millions of dollars. But the end product is fantastic. If you talk to folks who have digital televisions they will look at them and never go back to analog  the difference is that noticeable and spectacular."

The digital switch will also enable TV stations to broadcast at least two or three channels of programming when they're not transmitting high definition signals. So, consumers eventually could see a doubling or tripling of the stations available to them over the air.  That is as long as they're set up to receive those signals.