The DTV transition will give you better, cheaper television.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
June 11 2009 5:04 PM

Digital TV Is Here. Please Remain Calm!

Why the DTV transition will give you better, cheaper television.

Old TV. Click image to expand.
An old TV

After more than a decade of warning, preparation, whining, delay, denial, anger, bargaining, and finally resignation, it's here: On Friday, your television will go digital. Most likely you'll notice nothing at all. The digital television transition, a congressionally mandated change in the way broadcasters send images over the air to your TV, will affect only the small minority of Americans who still get most of their shows through an antenna. If you subscribe to cable or satellite—or if you're using an antenna but have a TV made after 2007—you've got nothing to worry about.

Even those who are affected by the transition have been moving quickly to update their TVs. According to Nielsen, many have purchased new sets or applied for government coupons to buy digital converter boxes, which allow old TVs to continue to work after the switch. Only 2.5 percent of American households still aren't ready for the change. The transition, in other words, looks like it'll go off mostly without a hitch.

Advertisement

Still, lots of people are in the dark about what the change means, and the benefits of the switch—and its small, niggling difficulties—aren't widely known. Though government agencies and well-meaning consumer groups have been advising citizens on the change for years, the story remains lost in a sea of confusing acronyms and technical specifications. News outlets tend to pump up the ridiculous fear that a huge swath of TVs across the land will go dark. Meanwhile, scammy businesses are pushing people to buy equipment they don't need, like antennas that are supposedly "tuned for HDTV" (a myth I'll bust below). There are other problems, too. Even though new TVs and some peripheral devices like TiVos are prepped for receiving digital television, they're not very adept at navigating the new channels that have been created by the switch. Plus, programmers don't have a standardized protocol for dealing with digital TV. For instance, soon most every television set will be able to receive widescreen pictures, but shows and commercials still switch randomly and annoyingly between widescreen and full-screen.

For all these problems, there are a couple of amazing advantages to digital TV, benefits that you hardly hear about in the apocalyptic coverage of the transition. The first one: The switch is going to free up a vast share of public airwaves that can be used for much better things than TV. Last year, the government auctioned off the "spectrum" that TV stations will give up once they stop broadcasting analog signals. Verizon and AT&T won the radio space, though Google, in its first big foray into lobbying, managed to convince the Federal Communications Commission to require that the telecom companies keep the new space "open"—meaning that they can't restrict what software or hardware customers use on the airwaves. As a result of the switch, we'll soon get a much better wireless Internet—wider coverage, faster downloads, and with fewer restrictions. That's much more worthwhile than a snowy local channel showing reruns of Golden Girls.

The second advantage concerns your television. Now that broadcasters are transmitting digital signals, you can get amazing TV reception for free through an antenna. In other words, it's a great time to ditch cable!

Before I get into the specifics of cable-ditching, let's first clear up some terminology. The people who came up with new standards for TV ought to win some kind of Achievement in Mass Confusion Award for picking two similar acronyms—DTV and HDTV—that stand for entirely different concepts. The D in DTV stands for digital; the D in HDTV stands for definition, as in high-definition. DTV refers to the way signals are coded when they're transmitted over the air; after Friday's DTV transition, all of the signals that travel into your home will carry television programming digitally. HDTV refers to the picture you see once the signals get to your television—a high-definition picture is a lot clearer than a traditional standard-def picture.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.