National Consumers League

Don’t buy anything for the 2009 digital TV transition until you read this!


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Congress has required that full-power broadcast stations transmit only digital signals on February 17, 2009, and in some instances consumers may end up wasting money due to confusion or misinformation.

You may have heard about the upcoming digital transition and wondered whether it affects you and what you need to do to prepare for it. Staff at the National Consumers League recently conducted an informal survey of Washington area retailers and found that many employees at the stores that sell digital converter boxes aren’t telling the whole story to consumers.

The employees we talked to, posing as consumers asking questions about the transition, got some of the most basic information correct: consumers with cable or satellite services will not be affected by the DTV transition. So if you pay for your TV programming and will continue to do so, don’t worry, and don’t buy anything new.

However, every employee that we talked to in our experiment failed to mention that many TVs out there already have digital tuners built-in, and those will not require a converter box. It is not easy to tell if a TV is analog or digital other than checking the owner’s manual.  One indicator that a TV is receiving digital signals – and is thus a digital TV – is that bad reception results in pixilation rather than a “snow storm.” Most TVs manufactured before 2004, and some manufactured after that year, are analog and will require the converter equipment. You should check your owner’s manual or look up your TV model online to see if it already has a digital tuner or is an analog TV.

While researching the issue, we came across some information worth sharing:

  • Be wary of retailer employees trying to tell you that you “need” to buy a whole new TV for the transition. This is not necessary, and if you get a government $40 coupon online you should only have to pay $10 or $20 for a converter box.

Using a coupon mentioned in the last tip can be tricky. Here’s why:

  • You should order one early! It can take 3-4 weeks or even longer to receive a coupon after you request one. Also, it is projected that by August 2008 the coupons will run out unless something is done to make more available.
  • But not too early!! Many retailers don’t have the converter boxes in stock, and the coupons expire 90 days after they’re mailed, so make sure that you identify a retailer that has them in stock.
  • If you are going to get a converter box, consider getting one with analog pass-through. These will allow your TV to pick up both analogue and digital broadcasts. Some low-power stations will continue to broadcast in analogue after February 17, 2009. It might also be useful if you are near a border and receive broadcasts from Canada or Mexico. Broadcasters in these countries are not required to switch to digital, and may not do so for some time.