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TV, The HDTV Switchover, & You

| February 29, 2008 | 1 Comment

They can’t give us universal health care. They can’t fix the subprime mortgage problem. They can’t even find Osama bin Laden.

But at least they can subsidize our TV viewing.

The government is spending some $1.5 billion on its digital converter switchover program, which will ensure people with analog TVs can continue to watch over-the-air programming when the signals go completely high definition February 2009.

Analog TVs that use an antenna won’t be able to tune in unless they’re connected to a $60 device that converts the HDTV signal to standard-definition (SDTV).

The government will issue two $40-off coupons to each household that makes a request before March 30, ’09.

It may seem like a giveaway to the networks, the National Association Of Broadcasters, consumer electronics manufacturers, and electronics stores, but apparently it’s a matter of public safety. The program is part of the Digital Television Transition And Public Safety Act Of 2005, which is overseen by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications And Information Administration (NTIA).

About 14 percent of U.S. households watch TV over the air exclusively – or some 15.5-million households, according to a Federal Communications Commission report (the Consumer Electronics Association says there are some 13.5 million such households). However consumer groups say $1.5 billion won’t cover all the analog TVs – as many as 73 million – that might need conversion.

The boxes are only necessary for analog TVs that receive their signal through an antenna. Analog TVs hooked to cable and satellite television will require a digital cable box or receiver from a cable carrier in order to watch digitally delivered programming. But even they may want to get a couple converters as backup. Because you never know (at least in my neighborhood) when the cable will go out. And public safety really is important.

The $40-off coupon is good only for a single-use receiver. Devices with other features – such as a DVD recorder or DVR – will not be covered by the coupon. Although households are entitled to two coupons, only one can be used towards each device. The converter won’t turn an analog set into HDTV, but experts say the SDTV signal will probably look better than old-school analog.

No word yet on whether it will improve WBBM-TV Channel 2’s notoriously poor signal.

The coupon is expected to look like a plastic gift card and will expire after 90 days; it will also be tracked electronically. For an application, call (888) 388-2009 or visit The coupons can be used at any electronics store. That is, when they become available. As of press time they still weren’t around. The FCC’s most recent estimate was late February or early March.

ODDS ‘N’ SODS: Not that there will be much to see on TV even though the Hollywood writers strike just ended – unless, of course, you like reality TV. One ray of hope is British comedian Tracey Ullman – whose successful pre-TV recording career included the 1984 hit “They Don’t Know” (the video of which featured a cameo by Paul McCartney). Her new show comes to Showtime on March 30th. Though there are only five episodes in the can, “State Of The Union” looks promising. It has Ullman playing different characters and presenting a day in the life of America. It sounds not unlike what she did on her eponymous, Emmy award-winning Fox show back in the 1980s – where “The Simpsons” first appeared as a series of animated shorts. “State Of The Union” appears after “The Tudors” Sundays at 8 p.m . . . If we get really desperate there’s Fox’s new reality show, “When Women Ruled The World,” in which participants are sent to a remote location to create a new society where women are in charge and men take the orders. According to the press release, it’ll be a world “in which there is no glass ceiling and no dressing up to impress. In order to win, the men must accede to the women’s every demand, 24/7. Here, women command and men obey.” Yeah, right. It premieres March 3rd at 7 p.m. Kind of reminds us of a half-baked version of the brilliant 1977 satire, “All That Glitters.”


Some 14 full-time and three part-time Newspaper Guild Of America employees were laid off and 12 others took buyouts during the recent Chicago Sun-Times purges. They included TV critic Doug Elfman, who has made his way back to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where he used to be music critic (and where his syndicated “Game Dork” column runs). His new incarnation is as entertainment reporter. He never was able to fill former Times TV critic Phil Rosenthal‘s shoes after the latter sold out to the Tribune in 2005. But we’d still rather see a lame local critic covering the media than some syndicated voice from afar. Look for the paper to be sold – soon. And read “The Watcher” Maureen Ryan in the Tribune before she disappears, too . . . Just a few weeks after his Madison-based “Whad’Ya Know?” was dusted by WBEZ-FM (91.5), Michael Feldman‘s lively call-in quiz show was picked up by by Newsweb Corp-owned WCPT-AM (820). It’ll air live for the first time in years on the progressive talk station – Saturdays at 10 a.m. Now, if WCPT could only find a way to boost their signal. Perhaps the government will step in and help them, too. Somehow we doubt it.

– Cara Jepsen

Category: Columns, Media, Monthly

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  1. If I can be of any help then let me know.

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