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High-def anxiety: Digital switch could leave some Auburn viewers behind

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Nearly everyone owns a TV. But many TV owners are unprepared for a change taking place in less than a year that could throw their prime time into personal turmoil. KCRA TV's Gene Robinson is on the front end of a federally ordered switch in the way stations deliver their over-the-air signals that he described Wednesday as a move bound to completely revolutionize the industry. For TV viewers who are ready Feb. 17, when analog TV signals are slated to permanently disappear from the airwaves, the new digital TV era will allow more channels for each station, a clearer picture on the screen and better sound. Creative services director for KCRA Channel 3, Robinson is spreading the digital revolution message throughout the 16 counties the station sends its over-the-air signal out to. That's 1.3 million households in an area that includes Auburn. Latest estimates are that close to 17 percent of those households aren't ready, because of TVs that will need a digital converter box to tune in after Feb. 17. Robinson spoke to the Auburn Host Lions on Wednesday, asking for a show of hands and finding about 80 percent of the club's members thought they were ready for the switch to digital. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates at least 19.6 million households receive only over-the-air television signals in their homes, and about 70 million television sets are at risk of losing their signals in mid-February. That means while a household may have a digital, high-definition plasma in the living room or entertainment room, it could have an old analog set in a bedroom and another in the kitchen, Robinson said. To smooth the transition the federal government is now offering $40 coupons that may be used toward the purchase of a set-top box that will convert the free, over-the-air signal to digital and allow those older sets to continue to tune into stations such as KCRA. The digital converter boxes sell for about $60 and only one coupon can be used per unit. Households are allowed one or two coupons. Asked before Robinson's talk, Newcastle's Dick Molzahn said that he didn't feel very prepared for the change from analog to digital, let alone in a position to navigate through the sea of new technological advances like Blu-Ray high-definition recordings. He said his first thought was to get a new digital TV in preparation for Feb. 17. I haven't got a clue, Molzahn admitted. After the meeting, Molzahn said things were a lot clearer. Because he already is a satellite subscriber, there will be no reason to immediately go out and buy a new TV, he said. Cable and satellite subscribers, as well as customers of telephone companies with TV service, will not be affected by the transition, he was told. Russ Lewis of Lake of the Pines was one of the Lions Club members who raised his hand when asked if he was ready. I'm using Dish Network so I'm already hooked in, he said. Auburn's James Francis said he had minimal concerns for other reasons. I'm about ready to turn the whole thing off, Francis said. You see one thing one day and the same thing six months later. For Robinson, who has worked 25 years at KCRA, the digital switch is an exciting one. The station currently telecasts both digitally and in analog. The digital signal allows KCRA to provide several channels of programming at once. So-called multicasting is on the air in the form of KCRA's regular programming on one digital channel and a 24-hour weather channel. Digital signals also allow enhanced closed captioning not possible with analog technology. For digital sets, the technology provides a clearer picture with bolder colors, more detail and better sound. High-definition TV is a higher-quality version of the digital signal and even after the Feb. 17 change, not all programs will be broadcast in HD. Robinson compared the change to the revolution just more than 40 years ago when color TVs became affordable and quickly became the standard in American living rooms. Now it's digital “ and Molzahn hasn't completely set his mind on keeping his 14-year-old analog TV. It's nice to know your old TV will work, provided you get a converter box or have a dish or cable, he said. But I'll still consider changing out the TV I watch the most. The Journal's Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com, or post a comment at auburnjournal.com. Digital to Analog Fast facts - Switchover comes Feb. 17, 2009 - Television sets connected to cable or satellite won't be affected - Analog TV sets not connected to cable or satellite, or without a digital TV converter box, will not receive any television signals after the date of the switch - If you currently need a rooftop antenna to receive TV, the same antenna generally will be used to receive digital - For information on $40 coupons for converter boxes, go to www.ntia.doc.gov More information is available for the National Association of Broadcasters' DTVAnswers.com Web site.