15 years ago
By Elna Seabrooks
Staff Writer

    HOULTON — The lure of deep discounts before Christmas and the barrage of commercials about television’s digital conversion may have some consumers trying to figure out how to choose a new set before their screen goes blank. Not having a picture used to mean you were up late into the wee hours of the morning, the set was broken or the power went out. But, as of Feb. 17, 2009 it will probably mean you are not ready for television’s new era. That’s when broadcasting as we have known it, stops at midnight and television leaps into the digital era with clearer, sharper pictures and expanded programming. The exception is Maine Public Broadcasting that goes digital Jan. 11 on channel 10.
Analog conversion vs. digital
    In just a few weeks, you will need a special digital tuner in your television plus an antenna to receive the signal for free local programs. Or, you will need a converter box plus an antenna for your old-fashioned analog or cathode ray tube (CRT) television to pull in free over-the-air TV. If you have cable or satellite, in all likelihood, you probably won’t have to do anything more than continue paying your bill since your service provider will handle the transition for you.
    There are a lot of new terms out there if you go shopping for a new television: plasma, flat screen, rear projection, high definition TV (HDTV), liquid crystal display (LCD) or digital light processing (DLP). The choices among manufacturers are extensive. Depending on size, brand name and features, it can be a costly purchase even though many cash-hungry retailers are trying to draw in consumers with big sales promotions and discounts.
    Gordon Wark, president of NEPSK, Inc., which owns Polaris Cable and WAGM TV (channel 8), says high def doesn’t necessarily mean digital although the odds are quite good that it will be digital. If you’re in the market for a new digital set, he says “The biggest question is to ask is whether or not it has a tuner in it. And, ‘is it digital or ATSC?’, Then, you’ve made the first correct step.” In other words, be sure that it’s more than a monitor so it can pull in a signal over the air. And, he says, compare as many TVs as possible to find the one with a picture and reception that’s pleasing to your eye.
    “The high definition signal is just that. It’s extremely sharp — a very crisp image. In order to see that very crisp image it has to be displayed on a high definition television set,” says Wark. He adds that the difference between high def and analog is the difference between fuzzy old Polaroid photos and the best, pristine 35 mm prints.
    If you want to stick with your tube television, Wark says there is no such thing as a digital antenna although you may have heard that term. What you need, he says, is a good outside antenna – the “roof-top” type to get free over-the-air digital television — plus a converter box that changes the older analog format to digital. “The number one thing that you need for off-air viewing is obviously the tuner and the TV set – a good quality TV that makes a decent picture. And, then, you need a decent signal coming into it. And that usually means you need a good outdoor antenna aimed properly at the transmission point.” Wark stressed the importance of placement of the antenna for good reception. If you have cable or satellite, you don’t need an antenna or a converter box.
Ready-or-not testing
    Maine television stations have run coordinated tests of the state’s digital television programming system to help viewers determine if they need to do something to receive local, free-over-the-air broadcasts. Another test will run next Wed., Dec. 17 at 6:28 p.m. If viewers are watching on analog television they will see a slate come up advising them that they have to make changes to continue receiving free local programs. They will also see a special phone number — (866) 418-7678 — set up by the Maine Association of Broadcasters with staff who will answer viewer’s questions.
    Bonnie Hunt, office manager of Polaris Cable in Houlton says at first, a lot of calls to her office were from people asking about the conversion and whether or not they needed a new TV. Lately, most calls come in from residents outside the cable area wondering what they need to do. She has handouts that give consumers information prepared by the Maine Association of Broadcasters explaining the changeover with a list of retailers that sell conversion boxes, how to get coupons and who is eligible.
Conversion box coupons
    Congress mandated the conversion from analog to digital to free up the airwaves for emergency and public safety communication. It will allow emergency responders, like police and fire personnel, to get on the same radio frequency at the same time. Also, it will bring high-speed Internet service to rural areas and additional programming on sub-channels of existing television stations.
    To help defray the cost of the converter box, the government will provide two free coupons, valued at $40 each, to every household that applies while supplies last or until March 31.
    “We really urge people to apply for their coupons before the end of the year. And when those coupons arrive in the mail, use them to buy a converter box. Then, try your box out when you buy it,” says Todd Sedmak, spokesperson for the Commerce Department’s TV program for converter box coupons. “We call it apply, buy and try before the end of the year.” He urges people to apply as soon as possible since it will take time to get them, buy the box, hook it up and try it out.
    When you do buy your box, Wark says, basically you get what you pay for since the box becomes the tuner. He recommends the Zenith DT901 which, he says, has an easy to operate remote control and a sensitive tuner to pull in the best signal.  To apply for coupons to buy any converter box, since prices vary, consumers can call (888) DTV-2009 seven days a week from 8 a.m. until midnight. The Web site for an on-line application is