What’s This Digital Television Thing All About?

What is DTV?

Digital television is the next generation of video broadcast technology. The old system, called analog television, was created in the 1950s. DTV was created for the 21st Century by a working group of programmers, broadcasters and engineers, so that consumers will get the best product. The same way computers scan photos into data files (literally turning your vacation pictures into a series of 1s and 0s); DTV changes the film and video into digital images (those same 1s and 0s) and transmits them.

Analog still works, so why switch?

They used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but 8-track tapes were replaced by cassette tapes, which were replaced by CDs and so on. New technology does the same thing, but does it better. By changing the way TV signals are broadcast, the signals use less bandwidth, meaning more programming can be sent out over the airwaves. According to the FCC website, “That means better quality, more choices, and more control over your television.”

Using less bandwidth also means parts of the broadcast spectrum will no longer be needed by the TV industry. This spectrum is limited, like a series of pipes; there are many, but only so many. DTV means television needs fewer pipes. The others can be reassigned to public safety–police, fire and paramedic services–or wireless phone service providers or other uses.

When and how did the switch happen?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started setting up the switch-over in 1996. Starting March 1, 2007, all televisions built in or imported to the US must have a digital tuner as well as an analog tuner. Many stations launched digital broadcasting in addition to analog broadcasts in late 2008 or ’09. On June 12, 2009, all major TV stations ceased sending out analog signals. A few small, local TV stations will continue using analog.

Consumers who purchased TVs built March 2007 or after didn’t need to do anything; they were built switchover-ready. In fact, the switchover went smoothly, most people probably didn’t even notice it was happening. Those with older sets can buy a new TV or a converter than translates digital back to analog signals.

Analog-only TV sets built before March 2007 may still be available for sale; if so, retailers must to post a notice clearly stating which sets are analog-only.

Will consumers need a special antenna to get digital television programs?

Consumers who currently use an antenna, either on-the-set ‘rabbit ears’ or a roof-mounted antenna, should receive digital signals as well as they received analog signals.

Is this related to high-definition television?

No, HDTV is a separate issue. HDTV audio and video signals were always digital, this action means that regular TV (sometimes called ‘enhanced’ television or ETV) are is also now digital. Consumers do not have to buy an HDTV to see digital-TV programming. Broadcasting programs in enhanced and high-def formats is called ‘multi-casting,’ which will be one of the big advantages of the digital switch.

Other useful facts:

Consumers who decide to buy a new television don’t have to send their old set to a landfill; many communities have recycling programs.

Cable systems are not required to switch to digital; many cable companies offer digital and high-definition program packages as well as analog. Some may eventually choose to switch to all-digital programming. The FCC’s DTV rules apply only to broadcasters–those who use the public airwaves to deliver programming to consumers.

Parental controls (like the V-chip) will work as well with digital signals as they have worked with analog.

Like all consumer electronics, televisions have changed a lot over the past fifty years. With few exceptions, these have been changes for the better. Digital television is simply the newest member of that list.