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Keeping Up with TV Standards

By Stephen H. Wildstrom
JANUARY 20, 2006

More than a few readers have questions about the change from analog to digital TV signals coming in 2009. Here are some answers

My column "Analog TV: Fade to Black" generated a lot of questions from readers about the impact of the transition to digital TV. Here's a sampling:

Charlie Carroll writes: I just finished your article on digital TV, and I am still unclear about something. I have cable in my home (seven TVs and seven VCRs), but only two sets have cable boxes. The rest all receive cable through their cable-ready tuners. Will all of these sets, including the VCRs, require a cable box [for digital cable] or will it be transparent and not require cable boxes or digital converters? I have never seen VCRs even discussed.

Unless you have a TV that is digital-cable ready, which requires that it be equipped with a device called a CableCARD, you will need a set-top box to receive digital-cable signals. There had been some talk of cable operators converting digital signals back to analog for use by existing cable-ready TVs, but the Federal Commission has indicated that it will not allow this.

VCR playback, however, should be unaffected. Nearly every VCR offers a choice of composite video, S-video, and co-ax outputs, and at least one of these is virtually certain to work with any TV, new or old. But you won't be able to record from digital signals without first running them through the same adapter used to convert digital signals for analog TVs.

William P. Ryan writes: In the article you mention, "All satellite and most cable signals already are digital." My cable provider, Cox, supplies only analog signals for the basic standard channels, 2 through 99. One can subscribe to digital cable for the high channels and premium channels.

Most cable operators are phasing out their analog systems in favor of digital. Even on the digital system, however, there are still analog channels, mainly in the basic-cable tier. However, as the digital transition proceeds, these analog channels will slowly disappear and be replaced by their digital equivalents. The analog broadcast channels will cease to exist in February, 2009.

Leonard Marx writes: We have three TV sets -- master bedroom on the second floor, library on the main floor, and exercise room in the basement -- all connected to cable. Is it correct that in order to receive high definition TV in the future we will need to replace all the coaxial cables? We have Verizon (VZ ) FiOS service and had to hard wire my wife's computer at a cost of more than $600.

FiOS is Verizon's new fiber-to-the-home service. Currently it is being used to deliver high-speed Internet service, but Verizon is supplying TV service in test markets. (See BW Online, 9/28/05, "Verizon's Muddy TV Picture"). Ultimately, Verizon will deliver TV over FiOS using Internet technology. But that still doesn't mean you'll have to rip out your existing wiring and replace it with fiber or Ethernet cabling.

An industry group called the Multimedia Over Coax Alliance (MOCA) is developing technology for transmission of data over existing TV cables. High-speed transmission over power lines in the home is also under development. And on Jan. 18, an Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers task force approved a draft standard for wireless transmissions that could be 10 times faster than today's Wi-Fi.

Scott Barr writes: We are...looking for a new TV but are unsure as to whether or not we should get an HD-ready TV now, or just wait out the next three years. It seems like most of the HD-ready TVs are only good on HD channels (of which we only get about 10), and for the other 300 channels we get through our digital box, we'd actually lose reception.

So, should we stick it out for another three years or get an HD-ready TV now? Also, one thing your article didn't address that I'm confused about is the widescreen (16:9 ratio) TVs vs. the square (traditional 4:3)-screen TVs. Will all the broadcasts in 2009 be in a widescreen format? If this is the case, then the square TV will cut off the sides. Also, it sounded like you said that as we get closer to 2009, that there will be more and more HD programming. Does this sound right?

The issue of the quality of non-HD channels on HD displays is a complicated one (see BW Online, 1/4/06, "Headaches in High-Definition").

One thing that's clear is that analog cable channels look pretty bad on digital displays, particularly if it is an analog channel coming through a digital set-top box. There are two perceptual problems with standard definition digital cable channels seen on HD sets. One is that they look lousy compared with HD channels, and unless you are watching side-by-side, you forget how lousy they looked on a standard definition set.

Second, HD displays are typically bigger than the SD sets they replace. When you spread the 480 lines of SD out over a bigger screen, the image looks less sharp. It isn't, but the psychological effect is real. Some digital content is 16:9 (widescreen), some is 4:3. Even some true HD content is 4:3; ESPN does this a fair amount by using sidebars to narrow the screen; this is much better than stretching the image horizontally to fill the screen. The normal way of displaying widescreen content on a conventional display is to letterbox, using black bands at the top and bottom of the screen. This wastes some of the screen area, but preserves proportions and perspective.

Michael Antonoplis writes: Recently, I believe you wrote about an HD converter for conventional TVs in you BW column. Does such items exist, and if so, could you list them? We have DirecTV (DTV ) at home.

True high-definition requires the ability to display at least 720 scan lines on a widescreen (16:9) display. Conventional TVs can only show 480 lines on a 4:3 display, so there's no way to get a conventional TV to display HD. What you may be thinking of are converters that allow digital signals to be viewed on conventional sets. These are coming, though I do not know of any that are on the market yet. But with DirecTV, you shouldn't need one. Your DirecTV set-top box already converts digital signals to the standard analog signals needed by conventional TVs.