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.
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.
For our purposes, the key thing to remember is that you can enjoy the benefits of DTV without owning a fancy flat-screen HDTV. That's because digital signals are a lot less sensitive to interference than analog signals. Many people subscribe to cable only because they live in areas that don't get great over-the-air reception. For these people—folks who don't care for the Food Network or Bravo and who get enough of Jon and Kate at the checkout line—DTV is a godsend. If you've got an old TV, just buy a digital converter box, which should cost just $10 or so after you redeem your $40 government coupon.
You'll also need an antenna. If you've got one already, use that. Even though many antennas now being sold claim to be specially made to receive digital broadcasts, there is no such thing as an HDTV antenna, and any old one should work fine. (If you're buying a new one, check out these reviews, and don't spend more than $50.) What matters more than the kind of antenna you choose is where you put it—in general, outdoors beats indoors, the higher the better. Connect the antenna to your converter box, connect the box to your TV, and voilà —you're getting TV for free! And, if you do have one of those fancy new HDTVs, your picture will be fantastic—you'll be watching the tube in exactly the same high-def resolution you'd get if you subscribed to cable or satellite.
Now, your channel lineup depends on where you live and where you put your antenna. Check out TVFool.com's signal analyzer to get an idea of which stations come in where you live. Many people report surprisingly good results. When I plugged an antenna in to the TV in my San Francisco apartment, I was able to receive my local ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, and PBS stations, whereas in the old days I'd get only snow. (The picture wasn't perfect: I would occasionally see some slight ghosting, and the picture would sometimes freeze completely. Once I repositioned my antenna, things looked better.) Because digital signals require less space than old analog signals, you'll also notice that many stations now feature one or more "subchannels"—I can choose from three different programs on my PBS affiliate, for instance.
Of course, your mileage may vary. Some people report getting worse reception after their local stations switched to digital. In the old days, if you lived at the edge of a station's broadcast area you might have gotten a picture that was snowy but still watchable. A weak digital signal, by contrast, resembles what you see when you play a scratched DVD—the picture freezes up, compression artifacts crowd the screen, and sometimes the whole thing just goes blank. As a result, some people in rural areas could find themselves without any watchable signals at all.
Many of these people crowd online forums to complain about the new regime. "Why fix something that wasn't broken!?" is the standard refrain. And you've got to feel for them; suddenly, by government mandate, they've lost access to the nation's favorite pastime. But while the story is sad, it's not tragic. Some people who were previously getting snowy TV will now get nothing at all. Meanwhile, the rest of us will get better Internet and better free TV. In allocating a public good like the airwaves, the government has to make trade-offs. I'd say this is a pretty good one.