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A digital world

Here’s an odd statistic about the entertainment capital of the world: Los Angeles has the country’s largest population of consumers who won’t pay for television programming. The National Assn. of Broadcasters estimates that 779,000 county residents rely on free over-the-air TV signals. That’s nearly one out of four homes with TVs. As a consequence, the region has more at stake than most in the shift from analog to digital TV broadcasting. If those viewers aren’t prepared for the coming analog cutoff, they will lose the ability to watch TV live.

Unfortunately, relatively few are prepared, in Los Angeles or the rest of the country. According to a study last month by Nielsen, about one of every six U.S. households will find itself with at least one crippled TV set if it doesn’t take action by Feb. 17, 2009, when full-powered broadcasters turn off their analog channels. (Low-powered TV stations, which are found mainly in rural areas, can continue broadcasting in analog for an indefinite period.)

The problem isn’t ignorance, it’s confusion. Three out of four consumers are aware of the looming switch, yet with electronics, cable and satellite companies touting an array of “digital TV” products that have nothing to do with digital broadcasting -- Digital cable! Digital video recorders! Blu-ray! -- it’s hard for people to know what they should be doing.

The Federal Communications Commission finally weighed in this month, ordering broadcasters, pay-TV services and device manufacturers to do more to educate the public about the analog cutoff. The commission is also wisely considering a trial run, with a few communities taking the digital-only plunge ahead of time. In the meantime, Angelenos should figure out how many of their own sets are vulnerable.

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If every set in your house is connected to a satellite receiver, you have nothing to worry about. Ditto if your TVs are connected to cable, at least until 2012, when cable operators will no longer be required to carry analog versions of their channels. For sets not connected to cable or satellite, you’ll need a digital tuner or converter box. You may already have one inside your TV; all new sets have them, as do many of those sold in the last decade. Look for a digital input on the back or check your owner’s manual to be sure. If the set says it’s HDTV “ready,” however, or if it was marketed as a digital “monitor,” it won’t include a digital tuner.

Digital converter boxes, which receive a digital broadcast and translate it into analog, are available for upward of $50 from Radio Shack and other retailers. The federal government will send you up to two $40 coupons for converter boxes, if you fill out an application at www.dtv2009.gov. The supply is limited, though, and it’s first-come, first-served. That’s all the more reason not to wait until next year to make your own digital transition.


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