Holes in the DTV Transition
A slew of converter boxes and the government's confusing coupon program are just some of the problems plaguing the digital transition.
Holes in the DTV Transition
August 29, 2008 by Richard M. Sherwin

Everyone is talking about how all TV will be digital thus enabling the broadcasters to use the extra bandwidth to provide even more stations to the already overloaded channel listing. In return the broadcasters relinquished other analog channels enabling the government to auction those stations or tiers off for a profit.

In actuality it’s really only “full-power” broadcast TV stations, which use the public airwaves to provide free over-the-air programming. Cable TV networks, like CNN, MSNBC, Lifetime, etc. are not required to switch to digital in February; they can continue to deliver channels to their customers in analog. However, as cable providers convert to digital transmissions over their systems, you may need to subscribe to their digital tier to continue to receive this non-broadcast programming.

So what does that mean to you? And if the change affects you, what do you do about it? Well, if your TV sets currently receive programming through cable or satellite, don’t worry, you’re OK. You’ll continue watching TV as before, except the picture might (hopefully) be even better than you’re used to. Some cable companies have jumped the gun and dropped their analog stations or moved them to a digital tier requiring their customers to pay more for what they have for basic cable.

You only have to “do something” if you have one or more televisions that receive free over-the-air television programming with a roof-top antenna, multi-dwelling master antennas or “rabbit ears” on the TV. Then you have to figure out what type of TV you have. 

According to sources at the major retailers, the biggest question asked after the customer asks for directions is why he/she has to pay for the box.

Brian Forbes, a spokesman for the NTIA says that his division of the government was entrusted with managing the huge transition. Other industry officials blame Congress for shortchanging the public. Congress allotted a certain amount of money for the transition, which stopped at $40 a box. The box makers and retailers can’t make money at the price, consequently the markup of sometimes as much $20. In any case millions of people have gotten their coupons and have already traded them in for a converter box. A good portion of those, who don’t plan to add cable or satellite, have purchased the renewed, revamped and so far very reliable 2008 version of rabbit ears: An under $40 set top antenna to receive those converted and not converted channels.

But the huge push and decent acceptance of the digital convergence has taxed the manufacturing and retail system beyond what they were expecting.

I recently visited a dozen Best Buy and Circuit City stores along with some wholesale clubs. Not surprisingly, the customers asking for a box (slightly discounted at the wholesale clubs ($49-$54), but full price at the CE stores) have no one to answer their questions and are also confronted with what seems to be simple directions right on the box. But despite some common names like Zenith, and GE and Magnavox, there’s still a lot of confusion for many consumers. There are also several instances of online retailer problems and non conforming, though licensed converter boxes.

Sources close to the NTIA and FCC, the governing bodies of the transition, admit that they have to cancel the licenses of several converter box makers and investigated several online retailers, because:

  • The boxes were found faulty (some run too hot) and not delivering the analog to digital signals that is required.
  • The (mostly) on–line retailer failed to deliver the boxes to consumers who sent in their coupons.

“If you have a problem with a retailer or a box itself (after getting technical support) please report these issues to us,” says Forbes.

The best advice from most industry analysts is that if you are going to participate in the converter box program, do it sooner rather than later. “The coupon program is barely meeting its goals now but the longer you wait the longer it will take to get the coupons and the boxes themselves,” says Wanger.

Related articles:
Everything You Need to Know about the Digital Transition
The Converter Box Setup
DTV Transition: FAQs

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Richard M. Sherwin - Contributing Writer
Richard Sherwin is a former syndicated technology columnist and TV/Radio analyst, who has also been a marketing executive with IBM, Philips, NBC and a chief advisor to several manufacturers and service providers.

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