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TVs Prepare for Transition to Digital Signals

March 1, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: TV, as we knew it, is fading to black. After more than seven decades, analog broadcasting will go the way of the vacuum tube in 2009.

This old method of transmitting TV programming will be replaced by digitally encoded radio waves. In fact, today is the day when every new television set shipped for sale in the U.S. must have a digital tuner.

Even with two years until that deadline, many people are already preparing for the digital switch by purchasing new televisions: 11.4 million digital TVs were sold in the U.S. in 2005, and about 19.7 million digital sets were sold in 2006.

Many of these purchases are for high-definition TV sets, just one form of digital TV. HDTV offers a widescreen picture with far more detail and clarity than analog TV sets can provide.

Congress has prodded the country to move toward the new digital TV standard. Right now, many stations broadcast both signals, so people can watch with whatever set they have.

Broadcasters have a deadline, in early 2009, by which they must convert to digital broadcasting. And on that day, all the analog TV sets in America will go dark, unless you hook up a digital converter box, which will change the new signal back into the old standard.

Congress has even promised subsidies to help people buy those boxes and keep their old TV working.

Impetus for the switch

And joining me now is Walter Mossberg. He's the author and creator of the weekly personal technology column in the Wall Street Journal. He's been doing that since 1991.

And, Walt, why were manufacturers compelled -- not suggested, not urged -- but compelled to stop making and retailers compelled to stop selling analog TV sets?

WALTER MOSSBERG, Wall Street Journal: Well, Ray, I think originally -- and this sounds funny, it sounds like ancient history -- but I think it goes back to the scare in the '80s that Japan was going to overtake us in a whole bunch of technology areas, and so the government felt like this was one of the big areas that we had to be competitive in, and the government got involved in it.

RAY SUAREZ: So if you're buying a new TV, should you make sure it's not analog before you buy it?

WALTER MOSSBERG: You should make sure today that it has some capability to do digital, to receive digital. But I've got to tell you, it's unbelievably confusing. You need an encyclopedia to walk into the TV aisle at Circuit City, so it's not just that.

Keeping analog televisions

RAY SUAREZ: When the switch to digital started -- and that's some years ago now -- what was done to protect the millions of people who still had regular TV sets?

WALTER MOSSBERG: Well, it wasn't really much of an issue, because the industry, the broadcast industry, the cable companies, the satellite companies, were then not really broadcasting very much in digital, and certainly not in high-definition, and I would argue that today they're still broadcasting a fairly small amount in those formats.

RAY SUAREZ: Do sets turn over quickly? By 2009, is it assumed that most people will have a digital tuner of some sort?

WALTER MOSSBERG: Well, they didn't used to turn over very quickly, of course. We can all think back in our families of sets that were kept for 10 or 15 years.

I think now it's beginning to approach more the model of computers, where people keep them three to five years because, as technology changes, if people have the resources, they do want the latest and greatest.

RAY SUAREZ: So if you buy a new television set or have just recently bought one or buy one between now and then, you're ready. But what if you don't? What if you keep your old analog set?

WALTER MOSSBERG: Well, as you said in your piece, Congress is mandating some sort of converter box and even talking about subsidizing it.

But I've got to tell you, I have not seen one of these converter boxes, but my guess is it's going to really give you a lousy picture. You'll be able to receive the signal, but you're going to get kind of a lousy picture.

RAY SUAREZ: So thus speeding a lot of families' decisions along the way to get a digital set.

WALTER MOSSBERG: Right, right.

High-definition programming

RAY SUAREZ: Well, a lot of the emphasis in our conversation and a lot of the articles has been on over-the-air TV. But if you're one of the majority of Americans who gets their TV by cable or satellite, where do you fit in this picture?

WALTER MOSSBERG: Well, the satellite box, the cable provider or satellite provider is going to give you a box -- and these are already available -- capable of digital, and particularly high-definition.

And as you said, those are not the same thing, but the real payoff, Ray, in going digital is high-definition. It's not just watching a standard-definition program that happens to be digital.

RAY SUAREZ: You have -- if I could say so -- gushed in your column about the quality of the HD picture and say you won't even watch things that aren't broadcast in HD.

WALTER MOSSBERG: Well, I wouldn't say I never would watch things that aren't, but here's the irony. I didn't gush about it for years when the industry wanted me to and wanted me to get interested in it, because I don't think the technology was perfected and there was way too little available.

But I think we've crossed the line now where, while we're still way too little being broadcast in HD, there's enough, including PBS and some of the other networks, that it's a cinematic experience. And when you get hooked on it, when you get used to watching it, it's difficult to go back and watch standard-definition TV.

'A better television experience'

RAY SUAREZ: So the consumer gets the enhanced visual quality, but also has to bear a cost of eventually getting a new set. What's the payoff for the consumer?

WALTER MOSSBERG: The payoff is just a better television experience. And I'm not a television critic, but I think you know that there is a feeling among television critics that this is really one of the golden ages of television. There's a lot of interesting programming, and it just looks better.

Do you need it? Is it like medication that you have to spend your money on or your mortgage? Of course not. But it is a better television experience.

And there's one other thing: A digital TV set also makes a very good mate to a computer or a computer experience. And one of the huge trends in television that I think is going to gather more and more force is video programming that is actually distributed on the Internet.

These old analog sets do a very poor job of representing the image from a computer or a computer-like device. Digital sets do a good job at that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I'm glad you brought up the Internet, because this change was launched in the '90s, when the people launching the change couldn't have imagined that anybody would want to watch a television program on a cell phone, couldn't have imagined that anybody would have wanted to watch a television program on an iPod, and now it's going to get here, 13 years later, the change, and, what, land in a totally transformed landscape?

WALTER MOSSBERG: It is. And I think switching from the TV industry a little bit now to the digital, the computer or consumer electronics business, the big issue, one of the big holy grails now is, how do we get all this material that's downloaded on your computer or that's available from the Internet, how do we get that onto the device you really want to watch it on, which is your TV?

And there's lots of work on that. Apple Computer, for instance, is introducing in a couple of weeks a box, a little slim box called Apple TV. You plug it into your television set. It's wireless. It looks around your house and it says, "Here are the photos that are on your computer. Here are the downloaded videos, the music," and it pulls it all, puts it on the TV.

But if you have an analog TV, it's not going to look very good, so a digital TV is a key part of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, thanks for being with us.

WALTER MOSSBERG: Happy to be here.