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Digital TV transition explained

New digital converter box and an old VHF UHF antenna (Joanne Rathe / Globe Staff Photo) A combination of the new digital box and the old VHF UHF antenna.
By Globe Staff
June 12, 2009
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What's happening:

The day has come for the transition of the nation's system for television broadcasting. After today, Grandma's 1950 DuMont "teleset" with the coat hanger wired to the back won't pick up programs any more without a little help.

Major Boston TV stations will remain on the air as always for most of the day today, but by midnight tonight, all of the television signals being broadcast in the US will have switched for the old, "analog" system – in place for some 60 years – to the new, cleaner, "digital" system. Several local stations plan to keep their old signal running for a short time, but they will be broadcasting all their regular programs on the new system – literally, a different kind of signal than older TV sets are able to recognize.

If you have satellite or cable TV, you should experience no change in your signal or in the channels you receive. If you have a digital TV – all newer TVs are digital – you should already be able to receive the new signals, even if you receive TV channels over the air, through a rooftop or "rabbit ears" antenna.

However, if you're using such an antenna on an old set, you will need a converter box to watch local channels, and you may need a new, stronger antenna to get all the local channels available in your area. That goes for any spare, older sets you have around the house that are not connected to cable or satellite TV.

The antenna and converter box each to a different job. The antenna plucks the signal from the air, and the converter box translates it so that an old, analog TV set can understand the digial signal - usually on channel 3.

What to do today:

If you do not yet have a converter box for your older set, and you have not already done so, you can still apply for two $40 discount coupons from the federal government until July 31 to help defray the cost. Most converters run around $60. Call (888) DTV-2009 for help or go to www.DTV2009.gov.

There is government help – free – available for installing converter boxes and antennas. Try 888-CALL-FCC. In Boston, seniors are eligible to receive basic cable TV service from Comcast for a discounted $5 a month. More information can be found at the Mayor's Cable Office at (617) 635-3112.

If you have a converter box, it should be easy to install and set up. Essentially, the box is wired in between your TV set and your antenna. You will no longer have to stand up to change the channels, but rather, use the remote that came with the converter.

Once the converter box is wired up, turn everything on and use its menu – which you can get to with the remote – to "scan" for channels. The channels you know will now be digital, and the scanning process allows the box to pick up local channels. Scan again tomorrow, just to make sure your box will recognize any signals that were switched on late in the day. Even if you have a digital TV that does not require a converter box, it may be a good idea to re-scan for channels, as some stations may shift their digital signals as part of the transition.

What will be different:

The picture from the new digital channels should be as sharp and clear as cable TV – no static at all. But that's if you get any picture. With the old, analog system, a weak signal was still visible, although it may have been snowy. With a digital signal, you either get a clear, perfect picture or no picture at all – or in the case of a marginal signal, a picture that can freeze and break down.

To get a strong digital signal, many people find they need to replace their over-the-air antenna, which can cost anywhere from $15 to $100. Go to antennaweb.org for help.

What to do tomorrow:

If you replaced an older TV that you now want to get rid of, take care not to simply put it in the trash. Older sets contain toxic materials, and state law mandates special treatment. In Boston, call the public works department at 617-635-7574, and they will come to pick it up. Many other cities and towns offer TV recycling programs, which are usually free. Contact your city or town hall for more information. The electronics retailer Best Buy also has a recycling program, but a modest fee is involved.