Secrets to Surviving the Switch to Digital TV

June 12 is right around the corner. Are you ready for the switch?


Tap the expertise. One big concession the government has made is admitting that it isn't easy for nontechies to install the converter boxes. The feds have trained and dispatched thousands of volunteers to help, including firefighters and AmeriCorps members. Even better, millions of dollars are being paid to outfits such as the Geek Squad at Best Buy stores to install the boxes. Getting home help is as easy as calling 1-888-225-5322, but be warned that it isn't available everywhere.

Scan, rescan, and rescan again. Stations are bouncing around the spectrum like untethered rubber balls. Converters must "scan" the spectrum to find out where stations are broadcasting—a process that's part of setting up a new box. But a station can disappear as it moves to a new spot on the spectrum. In a digital world, old trusty "Channel 5" is just a figment—a virtual designation for a station that could be broadcasting on any one ofactual channels 1 to 69. Stations move around as they juggle the switch from analog to digital. Learn how to periodically force a converter box to "rescan" when stations drop off your screen. Be sure to do a rescan on June 13 when the shifting should be mostly over.

Jiggle and wiggle. Digital doesn't do away with the challenges of getting TV through an antenna. The signals, in fact, seem more sensitive to storms, new leaves on trees, and—believe it or not—vehicles moving nearby. So don't be surprised if a digital signal that appeared stable and crystal clear suddenly starts breaking up, stutters, or drops out altogether. Repositioning the antenna can make a difference, or a new one might be needed.

[See why 1 in 5 TV stations won't reach all its current viewers after the transition.]

Fatten the pipe. The reception problem could be in old wires between the antenna and TVs. Many rooftop antennas are decades old and connected through archaic, flat "antenna wire." Simply replacing the ancient cord with modern coaxial cable can do wonders for problems that appear with the new broadcast signals.

Be prepared to be disappointed. Roughly 35 stations will simply disappear next week, including a number of major network affiliates. Some of them are just blowing the deadline because of technical issues and should eventually reappear as digital broadcasters. Others are too broke to make the switch and will go dark. Also, digital signals themselves won't do anything to improve what's playing on the dozen or so channels that most homes already get over the air.

Be prepared to be delighted. If you haven't yet tasted digital TV, it's a treat. The picture is clearer than even cable or satellite can deliver. Plus, increased bandwidth means that some stations, particularly PBS affiliates, are broadcasting added channels of entertainment. All for free. Some basic cable subscribers should get converter boxes and see if they can drop the subscription service for good.