How The Digital TV Transition Will Accidentally Help HDTV Sales

from the customer-confusion dept

There’s been a huge amount of confusion concerning the February 2009 transition from analog over-the-air TV to digital over-the-air TV, but one of the big points of confusion is the false assumption by many that this has something to do with HDTV. It doesn’t. It’s just about the television content that’s available freely over the air — as opposed to via cable or satellite TV. For anyone who is a subscriber to cable or satellite (i.e., the majority of Americans) the transition basically means nothing. Yet, thanks to years of FUD from folks resisting the transition (mainly the TV broadcasters who wanted to keep their spectrum) many people are quite confused about what this means. Some new studies have looked at public readiness for the switch, and while most of the headlines focus on the fact that about half of those impacted are unready for the shift, what may be much more interesting is a tidbit not found in most of the coverage, but tucked into the Washington Post coverage:

About 30 percent of the respondents indicated they had plans to ready themselves for the transition, even though they do not have to do anything to maintain service.

In other words, an awful lot of people who already have a digitally enabled TV, cable service or satellite service somehow think they need to upgrade to keep service after February. Obviously, they’re confused, and it would be a good guess to assume the root of at least a significant percentage of that confusion is that idea that this has something to do with HDTV. So, it sounds like a large group of cable or satellite TV subscribers are planning to upgrade to HDTV, not because they want to, but because they incorrectly think they need to to keep getting TV after February of next year. HDTV providers must be thrilled.

As for the percentage of folks who will be impacted and haven’t done anything about it yet, that doesn’t seem too troublesome. After all, there’s still seven or eight months to get it done, and people sure do like to procrastinate. What’s more troubling, perhaps, is the fact that the $40 coupons for converter boxes that are being sent out to those who request them expire after 90 days. Why? No one seems to have any clue, and its leading to many of these coupons expiring before people have a chance to redeem them.

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Comments on “How The Digital TV Transition Will Accidentally Help HDTV Sales”

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Vinod Tonangi (user link) says:

Re: Even the cable companies are confused

Yeah – but that is because these guys don’t themselves don’t understand how anything works. Anyone that has a new HD Tivo understand that you need 2 cable cards to make it work. I had to argue with my installer for at least 30 minutes, before he would call and get 2 cable cards for each of my two Tivos. He claimed that there was new technology that allowed my Tivo DVR to only use one. He obviously was an idiot, and didn’t understand anything, and when I started getting frustrated he thew in some false information, because this is probably what he was told.

Davey says:

Re: Even the cable companies are confused

Most cablecos are switching to digital now, too, so subscribers do need either digital boxes or new equipment. So your in-law’s tv probably will quit working, if it hasn’t already. My cable company uses the constant “transition” propaganda campaign to pretend that its switchover is the same as the broadcast one. Its “tech support” drones seem to be genuinely confused.

Wait til grandma finds out that, cable or no cable, the digital wonderland will include no more auto-setting of her vcr clock, no more taping in advance, no more watching one station while recording another, and no more picture-in-picture. Unless, of course, she rents a dvr from the cableco at an outrageous price — she won’t be able to buy her own.

There are some benefits to the transition, but leave it to the unholy alliance of telcos, sattelite, and the US government to more than negate them.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

The whole notion that you can get HD programing for free via an antenna is being ignored and buried by the electronics industry and retailers. I was at Best Buy last year and they were playing a video on how to obtain HD programing. According to BB there were three ways: Buy an HDTV and obtain HD satellite programing, obtain HD cable programing, or buy an HD-DVD or Blu-ray player.

Not only did they fail to mention the possibly of free HD programing via an antenna, none of the major electronics retailers are even selling rooftop antennas. Not even Radio Shack!

It’s pretty clear that electronics manufacturers and retailers along with cable and satellite companies are using this switch from analog to digital as means to force us to spend a lot of money on new equipment and services we do not need.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t know if you’re an idiot or not, maybe you simply do not understand what I was saying or you do not understand this issue in general, but to clear it up, I was talking about the transition from analog to digital. Apparently, you do not know this, but you can receive digital broadcasts with an antenna. And you may not know this either, but those digital broadcasts can be in HD.

And just to clear this up, digital is not necessary HD. However, HD is necessary digital. Therefore, by talking about receiving HD, I was necessarily talking about receiving digital.

Vinod Tonangi (user link) says:

Re: I don't think you understand it either...

@ImaFish – Well this is (for the most part), wrong. The transition isn’t from analog to High Definition, the transition is from analog to digital. These are completely different. Most of the people in the United States will have to do nothing to get digital TV, since their cable provider is already providing it, however High Definition TV is completely different. I guess this issue even confuses the best of us. I hope you understand it now.

hegemon13 says:


I would definately concur with this article. My Grandma hurriedly sent off for those coupons for each of her TVs and wanted me to show her where to buy tuner boxes. One of the TVs already has an ATSC tuner. All of them are hooked up to cable. So, she has no need. I have explained this several times, and she continues to ask about it.

I think a lot of the confustion is in the terminology. Many products use the term “HD tuner” or “HDTV tuner” instead of “ATSC tuner” or “digital tuner.” While it is possible to receive free OTA HD content, most digital broadcasts are 480i, so the term “HDTV tuner” is really a misnomer.

I don’t think many companies are outright lying, but do think that they are happy to let consumers continue in their confusion. They certainly are not training their salespeople properly.

To play devil’s advocate for Best Buy, they may not have included OTA HD in their video because it is still not available in all areas. Since they are a national company, they certainly sell in areas that are not yet broadcasting in digital, and to sell an HDTV on the concept of free HD where it is not available may lead to an awful lot of returns. Or, they just want to sell more satellite contracts.

peggy G says:

Re: Concur

May I make a small comment on many of the emails I’ve read regarding the analog/digital conversion. One very important aspect of all of this is ALL of the cable service companys again ALL cable/telephone & satellite service providers in New York will be scrambling every signal…. even basic local channels which on Long Island were not scrambled previously unless you had premium channels. What that means is every television or separate VCR/DVD recorder set up in your home will have to have a separate tuner/descrambler box at a monthly fee from $4.00 to $9.00 when this digital conversion is completed. I have been researching this horredous predicament for nearly a year and very few people are aware of what’s about to occur if they have several tv’s in their home. Many of us over the years placed additional tv’s in kitchens, spare bedrooms, execise rooms etc.. In fact that’s where many of us stuck the old tv’s. But now, every tv you want to watch that is not hooked up to a free over the air Broadcast antennae your gonna pay for; every single month a fee to whichever service provider your hooked into. However, if armed with this knowledge you can prepare for this as we’ve done. Due to our many varied tv set ups in our home we researched the great info on web sites for antennaes that work in our area and will be ordering the antennae best for our location before the winter weather and use all of the existing cable leads we already have for free digital broadcast via the antennae and order cable service for the additional channels for just one main tv in the house. No way are we paying hundreds of dollars extra just to descramble local channels and make cable providers wallets fatter with our hard earned money. The FCC really messed up with this one; they should have figured if there was a way these providers could stick it to the uneducated consumer they would and they should have provided the consumer with better protection than just an digital/ analog converter box which is useless unless you have an antennae. Again all cable providers will be scrambling all of their channels period no exception all tv’s will require a montly fee paid decoder box. Please take the time to check out the information then contact family members who may be on fixed incomes and help them set up a free broadcast antennae if necessary before the winter hits.

Woogie says:

The more appropriate term...

is fraud. It’s sleazy at best and criminal at worst. I just recently got a new HDTV (good ol’ Sony 36″ CRT finally gave up the ghost). I’ve been a server/network engineer and general gadget guy for over 14 years, and it even took me a couple nights of research and fiddling to get things to work appropriately. My other favorite slimy maneuver by the brick-and-mortar outfits is the interconnect cables they try to push. ‘You gotta have that “certified” Monster 1200 HDMI cable to get 1080p to work correctly…’ WHA? At $30/ft no less. Give me a break.

I can’t imagine the layman navigating those waters. I’ve lost count on how many family and friends I’ve had to advise on this topic.

tubes says:

Re: The more appropriate term...

Wow what store was that I went to BB & HHGregg the cheapest HDMI cable they were selling was $50 for a 3ft cable & $125 for a 24ft. They tried doing the same pitch to me & I let him have it. I don’t know what I would do without the internet. I just can’t believe stores still price gouge like that when someone can just go to the internet & compare. I just ordered almost the same cables online for $5 bucks for 6ft.

Phillip says:

TV Sale

Two years ago my wife and I bought a HDTV set to watch DVD’s on. We don’t subscribe to any extra services. The salesman told us that w/o cable/sat we wouldn’t be seeing as good a picture as in their lobby. Well we got home, hooked up the old rabbit ears and to say we were shocked with the picture quality is an understatement. I think that all the salesmen have been duped into believing the HD subscription is necessary. Either they were tricked, or they are trying to fool customers to buy some extra 100$ cables.

bmac (profile) says:

Re: Re: TV Sale

Not necessarily true. Watching the NBA playoffs on TBS/TNT and ESPN over Dish Network HD, the quality was generally very good to excellent. Same quality when watching the over-the-air telecasts of the NCAA tournament and The Master’s on the local CBS affiliate.

However, since the NBA finals have moved to ABC, the quality is much worse, and I’m watching this on the over-the-air telecast from the local ABC affiliate. Turns out the local ABC station broadcasts only in 720p, while all of my other local stations, i.e. NBC, CBS, PBS, etc. are 1080i.

So the moral of the story is that it also depends on who is doing the broadcasting.

Scott says:

Re: TV Sale

@ Phillip. The salesman was not lying. You are watching regular DVDs on an HDTV and while the results may impress you, the picture quality is not representative of your TV’s potential.

DVDs only have 480 lines of information. Your TV either displays 720p, 1080i, or 1080p. So either you are watching a tiny image (relative to your total screen size) or you are upconverting. Upconverting never looks as good as displaying an image in its native resolution.

No offense, but if you don’t want HDTV programming and just want to watch DVDs, you wasted your money. DVDs will look best on a 480p TV. Since 480p TVs are only marginally better than your 36″ CRT, they never caught on and you could get one really really cheap.

Dan says:

Actually Ima what they told you is correct.

To get “HD” or high definition, a HD device. No “standard definition” device will give you a high def picture, regardless if the signal is digital or analog. The convertion has to do with the transmission format not the resolution of the picture. There’s a difference.

There will be both standard and HD digitally broadcast channels over the airwaves for free. Those with standard resolution analog TVs will get the same TV they do now if they have a DTV converter box, it won’t be HD.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I realize you need a digital capable display along with an ATSC tuner to receive digital/HD content. My point is with the fact that you can receive digital/HD programing without paying for cable or satellite services or buying a new Blu-ray player. The fact that you can bypass those high priced services and products by simply installing an antenna is being buried and ignored.

So, sure they were correct. I never said they were incorrect. But they failed to tell the whole story to get you to spend more money. And where I’m from that’s lying and possibly fraud.

Dan says:

Re: Re: Re:

“So, sure they were correct. I never said they were incorrect. But they failed to tell the whole story to get you to spend more money. And where I’m from that’s lying and possibly fraud.”

It’s not fraud when a customer intending to talk to Best Buy about DTV asks them about HD instead, not knowing there’s a difference. Best Buy can’t read minds. That is why the required stickers are to be on the soon to be obsolete units.

PRMan (profile) says:

Wow, lots of misinformation even in these comments...

My sister-in-law was told by “the cable guy” that her older, analog set would stop working even though it IS hooked up to the cable!

The guy that came to her house? I’d go with confused. I’ve rarely seen one that wasn’t.

Not only did they fail to mention the possibly of free HD programing via an antenna, none of the major electronics retailers are even selling rooftop antennas. Not even Radio Shack!

It is possible to get the networks in HD this way, but few people want to mess with an antenna. Sales are very low for antennas for HDTV (any UHF antenna is fine). Not to mention that many people prefer cable channels and that most cable services and DirecTV now have locals for most markets.

Since they are a national company, they certainly sell in areas that are not yet broadcasting in digital, and to sell an HDTV on the concept of free HD where it is not available may lead to an awful lot of returns. Or, they just want to sell more satellite contracts.

It’s definitely the latter. They don’t sell antennas, but they do sell DirecTV subscriptions. And most people want DVRs these days anyway.

As it is, most VCR/DVRs will become paperweights without an ATSC tuner.

How so? Every HDTV device that I have seen will output in 480i somehow. Just hook that output to the VCR or DVD recorder. DVRs come practically free from your provider anyway ($5-10 monthly). And TiVo has had CableCard slots for years.

Oliver Wendell Jones (profile) says:

People are stupid

I work at a very small TV station in the Midwest and we get daily phone calls from people asking about the DTV switchover and almost all of them are from people watching us on cable.

The thing that people need to be aware of is that a lot of satellite systems allow you to hook up an external antenna and pick up your local channels over the air (as they do in our area) and if you have an older satellite box (more than 2 years old) you need to contact your satellite provider and find out if it has a built in ATSC tuner or else you’re going to need a converter box or a new satellite box before the switchover in Feb of 2009.

Don’t be misled by the statement “if you’re on satellite – you’re safe” as you may not be.

Thom says:

Every time

Every time this subject comes up I comment that a huge portion of this country will be abandonded by the switch-over. It’s as true today as it was a couple years ago when I started commenting.

My area is served by four broadcast stations all located approximately 30 miles west of me. Each is broadcasting both analog and digital signals at their approved full power.

I can receive all four analog signals clearly. In fact I can receive all four analog signals at a home a further 40 miles east of here, three singals clearly. Further than that and stations from another market slowly become tunable as these stations singals fade out.

Unfortunately, I can only recieve two of the four digital signals here and NONE of the digital signals at the further home. That further home has a new high gain antenna atop a 40ft tower too, something few homes have.

Based on my experience and an educated guess on population densities I’d bet that no more that 50 percent of the homes covered by the analog signal are able to receive the digital signals. Digital converter boxes won’t matter and I suspect the uproar will be great when analog shuts down and especially so when a few families dies during inclement weather they weren’t alerted to.

Josh says:

******Why Coupons*******

Why do we have to deal with ordering, mailing, losing, using coupons. Why can’t the government write one big check to each of the three or four companies that make the boxes. Really whats easier lots of coupons reimbursing thousands of retailers or four checks to the manufactuers. In fact there is probably ten dollars in hidden costs just in issuing and reimbursing by using the coupon model. After all the government is making money from this transaction why do they care if I get an extra box or two at a discount rate. It’s not like I’m going to use the box for something other than intended.

Ziggy says:

TV Stations aren't helping.

I recently noticed that all of my local affiliate stations (NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX) all now have a CNN-style ticker thing that runs on the top of the screen for a few minutes every hour or so that warns about the Feb ’09 switchover, and with a 800 to call with questions.

The annoying thing is that they broadcast it ON EVERY TYPE OF FEED. My parents get the channel via the local cable company. They are completely unaffected by the switch over. It’s there. I get the local feed in SD via Dish Network, it’s there too. I can also pick up their DTV SD and full DTV 720p or 1080i HD signals via OTA antenna, it’s there too. And lastly, if I reconfigure my TV to pick up analog signals, it’s on their ‘old’ analog broadcast as well – the only signal that’s actually going to dissapear.

The fact is that there is a lot of mis-information out there. It doesn’t help that the ‘average Joe’ customer doesn’t understand the difference between DTV and HDTV. Let alone 480i vs 480p vs 720p vs 1080i vs 1080p. Consumers as a group are stupid. But there are plenty of resources out there for people that need help. They just have to put forth the mental effort to do it.

My local Radio Shack sells a wide variety of both inside and outside antennas, as well as more esoteric devices such as antenna amps and pre-amps and signal meters. They’re not the best quality, but they are there. Likewise, my local Best Buy has all of their HDTV’s actually hooked up to an OTA antenna, and encourage people to flip through the channels and compare SD vs HD via OTA. Funny, the last time I was there and paid attention to their HDTV infomercial, it mentioned OTA broadcasts. I’ve overheard many conversations between confused customers and the ‘blueshirts’ about DTV and HDTV and what I’ve heard has always sounded at least mostly truthful. They also have a variety of OTA antennas to choose from.

Though they do still push the ‘necessary’ $80 3′ HDMI cables…

The simple truth is that there are people that will be ‘left behind’ with the transition. You will read about it in the news. I’m sure we’ll see it sensationalized. But within a week they’ll figure out what they need for DTV and get it taken care of. Life will go on.

Lord says:

How so? Every HDTV device that I have seen will output in 480i somehow. Just hook that output to the VCR or DVD recorder.

Without the ability to tune to a channel, no programmable support is available. Now if you are content to change the channel on the converter box before every recording, or content to only watch prerecorded media, they aren’t totally useless, just largely so.

Analog Rules! says:

Digital Sucks!

I applied for my coupon to get a “free” digital converter for my old tv set with roof antenna. After receiving it, I could not find anyone in town who sold the things for $40. I bought a cheap one at Walmart for $50, so it cost me $10. So much for free. Anyway, I tried it out, even though I don’t need it yet and discovered that the digital signal is unwatchable. My analog signal has always been pretty clear (with occasional light snow) on about 10 channels, but with digital I got stuttering images that remain motionless for long pauses and make it impossible to follow the dialog. This is the end of free over the air television, thanks to paid off senators and FCC officials. I wish someone would investigate this obviously crooked deal. Come next year, I guess I am done watching television.

hegemon13 says:

Re: Digital Sucks!

I would guess that the digital broadcasts will improve with time. Where I am, I get perfect reception on most of the channels, and the local networks are either 1080i or 720p. I do know what you are talking about. A bad analog signal can be watchable. A bad digital signal, with its stutters and block artifacts, is pretty much useless.


Re: Re: Digital Sucks!

Whoes idea was this, I am going to make a petition too try to UNDO the whole didgital thing! I don’t even hardly watch tv. When I do I lock the the tv in my room and record the tv show so there can not be a disturbance! this is a digrace for an upgrade. I would be an embareced fool if it where my idea!

tek noob says:

I got an a HDTV 1080i for xmass this past year and have been using an antenna (cable is overpriced). It took me 3 months to realize i could get HD programing if I toggled a few settings on my tv so I tried it out. I now have all the channels I had origionaly (8) plus and additional 3 SD and 4 HD. My tv has a built in HD tuner so will i need the box? Im still confused, lol.

John (profile) says:

Feb 2009?

What’s this about Feb 9, 2009? Like Ziggy mentioned, from the way the TV stations are promoting it, you’d think the switch over was *tomorrow*.
I know a lot of people procrastinate, but geez, the TV stations have been running these commercials for the past few months… which makes it a year before the switch. Do the TV stations and ad agencies really need to spend their money telling people about this (over and over) so far in advance?

R says:

Although you can get free, OTA HDTV channels, you may not be able to receive them if you don’t have a HD device. In Australia, we’ve got at least 3 HD only channels (in addition to the normal ones which are still broadcasting on analog), but you need a HD set-top-box/TV to view them. So there is a grain of truth in the confusion…

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:


@Quantity Surveyor Man:

Heh, you’ve got the right idea!


Yeah. Once those families have spent all that money on their TV and service upgrades, they won’t be able to afford a radio to get those inclement weather reports. And they’ll have to cancel their Internet service. And won’t be able to get to a newspaper stand. Or knock on a neighbor’s door. God knows TV is the only way to keep up with events!

margaret says:

digital transmission signals to hdtv are interrupted constantly–30 seconds, 60 seconds, every 15 seconds: plane overhead, furnace turns on, high pitched electronic noise either knocks signal off for a second or three or pixelates (sp) the screen. …what a great technology! the picture is perfect when you can see it . I am not the only one to experience this.

I do not want cable or digital TV and from everything I’ve read on line, this won’t help the problem anyway.

I now so appreciate what will no longer be available by Feb. 09: a constant image on my tv screen.

Barbara Thurlow says:

I hate Digital!

OK, am I the only one old enough to remember what TV was like before digital recording became the norm? Am I the only one who prefers VHS tapes to DVDs? Seriously, I really do not think digital is all it’s hyped up to be. Personally, I am sick of watching TV programs and having the sound go in and out, or seeing the picture constantly dissolve into mega pixels. I have not bought, or rented, a single DVD yet that was not full of glitches. In fact, I have given up renting them, because so many were completly unwatchable. A couple of small scratches…and forget it. Even brand new ones in mint condition don’t play right the whole way through.

People keep asking if consumers are ready for the big switch in February. Are the broadcasters ready? I remember when Jeopardy switched to digital…the program was completely screwed up for almost an entire week.

Why has the government decided that we should all suffer digital broadcasting? So we have a little more room for more junk on TV? Seriously, there is plenty of wasted space now. How about quality vs quantity? The techies would like to convince us all that digital is so much better, but I just don’t see it. I think digital sucks.

Converter Box Hater (user link) says:

Converter Box Hater

Digital TV abloslutely sucks, people that dont want cable or satelite now get !#@$ tv ! it blipps all out any time there is wind or movement. There IS NO better QAULITY, regular antenna was 10 times better this. this is just horrible. burn them all into recycled material and pass out good old antennas and refund everyones money!

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