(TV image from webtvwire.com)
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat, there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.”
That was the advice viewers heard at the beginning of each episode of “The Outer Limits“, a sci-fi TV series originally broadcast from 1963 to 1965. Now, 45 years later, Americans are getting some new advice, and yes, those same scary people are still “controlling transmission”. This time, however, there IS something wrong with your television set… the problem is that it’s analog, not digital.
When the clock strikes Midnight on February 17, 2009 (six months from this writing), your decrepit, old analog television sets will become electronic boat anchors, and you will be dragged into the brave new world of digital TV, whether you like it or not. You can enter the digital realm by replacing your beloved boat anchor with one of those shiny new digital HDTVs. Or, you can give your analog friend a reprieve by adding a set-top converter box which will allow your analog TV to pick up those new-fangled ATSC digital broadcasts, more commonly known as DTV or Digital TV. Learn more about DTV at the U.S. government’s official digital television website, www.dtv.gov.
A small number of stations in the United States will still be allowed to continue broadcasting those old NTSC analog signals after February 19th, but for the most part, analog TV sets will stop working on that date. And if you get your daily fix via cable or satellite TV, no worries. Nothing will change for you a few days after the St. Valentine martyrs get their annual tribute.
Now we don’t know about you, but the mere thought of being denied our god-given right to watch infomercials and the home shopping network 24×7 has put us into a digital frenzy. We’re pretty sure that those converter boxes will become scarcer than hens teeth as the deadline approaches. Expect long lines at electronics retailers, with people camping out at the local Best Buy, waiting for the next shipment of converter boxes to arrive from China by armored car. The lines will be so long, you’ll think Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft was releasing their newest game console. People will be paying proxies to stand in line for them. Scalpers will be buying the converter boxes and selling them on eBay at 300% markups. So, with these visions of my digital future weighing heavily on my mind, I’ve decided to start my dtv converter box shopping now.
Uncle Sam, in the guise of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (doesn’t that name just roll off your tongue?), has blessed Americans who apply for their $40 converter box coupons (limit two per household) at www.dtv2009.gov. They will send you a coupon that can be used towards the purchase of government-approved eligible converter boxes. It’s not actually a coupon, but rather what appears to be a debit or gift card, complete with a 16 digit account number embossed on the front, along with a way cool hologram, and the obligatory high-coercivity magnetic stripe and three digit CVC2 code on the back. And it expires two to three months after you get it, so if you snooze, you loose.
What will you pay for a DTV converter box? They are generally available anywhere from $60.00 to well over $100, online and at retail stores. We think that manufacturers and retailers have taken advantage of the fact that the government is subsidizing these converters to the tune of $40 each, and they’ve decided to inflate their selling price. Low-end DVD players, which are substantially more complex and expensive to produce, sell for prices starting in the $30 range. If you are considering shelling out over $100 for a converter box, you might want to think about replacing your TV with a digital model instead. You won’t have to deal with two devices or two remote controls, and you’ll gain some functionality and ease of use by replacing your TV, VCR, Tivo and/or DVD recorder, instead of retrofitting your old set, especially if you plan to record programs off-air. One of the biggest limitations when using a atv-to-dtv converter box is that you can no longer select the channel using the tuner (or programming capability) of your TV, VCR, Tivo or DVD recorder. You are forced to select the channel via the converter box (“Series 3” Tivos have both ATSC and NTSC tuners.)
What would these DTV converters sell for, if it wasn’t for the government subsidy? We suspect they would be in the area of $25-35 each. Expect them to drop back to that price range once the subsidy program goes away, and replacement of older televisions with new digital receivers picks up more steam. Almost all new TVs sold today have digital tuners that do not require an analog-to-digital set-top converter box.
So while the government subsidy program has probably encouraged people to buy converter boxes, it has no doubt also inflated the prices of those boxes. It has also encouraged some people who would have simply replaced their television sets, to put off that purchase, and opt for a converter instead. Based on some of the reviews being posted by purchasers of these set-top converter boxes, there are a lot of people unhappy with the performance and quality of these products. It seems likely that many of them will decide to scrap their converter boxes in favor of a new TV. We think a better way of providing a subsidy for DTV to Americans would have been a one-time tax credit for the purchase of a converter box or new digital television set. It would have had less of an inflationary effect on retail prices, been less expensive to implement, and would have been less susceptible to abuse than the coupon program.
We don’t know about you, but we can’t wait to see those infomercials offering their snake oil in 1920 x 1080 high-def resolution, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound. So if you haven’t done so already, apply for your converter-box coupons, bring your TV viewing into the digital age, and help increase our trade deficit with China, all from the comfort of your web browser. Click here to follow our adventures as we shop for, purchase, install and compare the features and performance of set-top DTV converter boxes.
To paraphrase the late television legend Tom Snyder, “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the bits, now, as they fly through the air”. (There is a treasure trove of Tom Snyder’s interviews from The Tomorrow Show available on youtube.)
– Routing By Rumor
Tom Snyder (1936-2007)
photo: wkyc.com Cleveland/Akron, OH