Converting to digital television may be easier than you think

Aaron Spitzer, who sells televisions at the Miller Hill Mall Sears store, is seeing a lot of confused customers these days. "The majority of people who come in ask what's going on with this," Spitzer said of the impending switch from analog to di...

Aaron Spitzer, who sells televisions at the Miller Hill Mall Sears store, is seeing a lot of confused customers these days.

"The majority of people who come in ask what's going on with this," Spitzer said of the impending switch from analog to digital television.

Over at Best Buy in Duluth, sales associate Dan Swartz finds he's spending time educating customers about the conversion and what it means.

"A lot of people kind of gave up trying to keep up, especially my dad's generation, the baby boomers," he said.

The switch to digital, which already has begun, will be complete on Feb. 18, 2009, when all full-power television stations in the country must have switched from an analog to digital format. The change, which results in a dramatically sharper picture and better sound, is said to be the biggest innovation in television since color.


Some customers come in angry, assuming they have to buy a new digital television to get the new broadcast signals, Spitzer said. But though people will need a high-definition or HD television to get a high-definition picture, old-style analog televisions will continue to work with a converter box or when hooked up to cable or satellite service. Each analog television not connected to cable or satellite service will need its own set-top converter box.

The converter boxes, which change digital signals to analog, soon will be available at electronics retailers for $50 to $70. At Radio Shack in Duluth, the boxes should be available later this month for $69.99.

To help consumers who have old TVs, the federal government is offering households two $40 coupons toward the purchase of two converter boxes. Requests for the coupons started being accepted last week by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The digital conversion could affect 20 to 25 percent of households in Minnesota that don't subscribe to cable or satellite service. That percentage is higher than the national average of 15 to 20 percent, said Tucker Carlson, government relations and communications director for Charter Communications in Minnesota.

Local television stations have gotten the costly new cameras, transmitters, editing terminals and upgraded equipment for digital broadcasting. For some time now, broadcast stations throughout the United States have been broadcasting in both analog and digital. Besides wide-screen, high-definition pictures, digital technology allows stations to have multiple programming on one channel. KBJR-TV Channel 6, for example, has programming on Channels 6, 6.1, 6.2 and 6.3. KDAL-TV Channel 3, WDSE-TV Channel 8 and WDIO-TV Channels 10/13 also have multiple digital programming. This "multicasting" can be received by digital televisions receiving signals by rooftop or "rabbit-ears" antennae. So far their high-definition programming is during prime time.

Meanwhile, Charter Communications' switch to digital cable will continue for several years, since cable doesn't carry the same mandate and deadline as free TV, according to Carlson. Currently, Twin Ports cable has 18 channels with high-definition programming; most are premium channels. For an additional monthly charge of $9.95 and a special box, cable users with high-definition televisions can get the high-definition picture. That extra charge will continue after the February 2009 industry transition, Carlson said.

At the Duluth Sears store, shoppers are looking for televisions that will be compatible with the digital conversion.

"That means having a built-in HD digital tuner," Spitzer said. "It's the way to go."


Biggest sellers are flat-panel TVs that are high definition and thin enough to hang on the wall. Prices range from $299 for a 15-inch model to $33,000 for a 70-inch model. The most popular size is the 32-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) TV, which costs from $599 to $1,200, Spitzer said.

At Best Buy, high-definition, flat-panel TVs also are the big sellers. Most popular are the 40-inch LCDS that cost from $1,200 to $2,000, Swartz said.

Sears and Best Buy no longer carry analog TVs. Both stores still carry some old-style tube TVs, but these models have built-in digital tuners. Their numbers, however, are quickly diminishing at both stores as that style phases out.

For those who don't care about high-definition pictures, however, there are deals to be had with the tube TVs that are digital but not high-definition. Sale prices can be found on these TVs whose pictures won't get any sharper with the digital conversion.

But prices have come down dramatically for high-definition televisions as well. Those that were $700 to $800 three years ago, when high-definition television became popular, are going for $300 to $400 now, Swartz said.

CANDACE RENALLS covers home-related topics. She's at (218) 723-5329 or e-mail: .

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