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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation's Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. If you live in Wilmington, North Carolina, you get to be an early adapter or a guinea pig depending on how you look at it. The FCC said yesterday that the Wilmington TV market would be the first in the nation to switch to all-digital television starting in September.

That's months ahead of the rest of us who must make that switch by February of next year. People who get their TV signal from cable or satellite won't notice the difference, but if you are still tuning in the rabbit ears on that furniture-size Magnavox or that double-dial Sony, you may need to buy a new set or get an adapter.

Joining me now to talk more about the change in what the folks might need to do to keep watching is my guest, Megan Pollock. She is senior manager of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association. She joins us from Washington. Welcome to Science Friday, Ms. Pollock.

Ms. MEGAN POLLOCK (Senior Manager, Communications, Consumer Electronics Association): Thank you.

FLATOW: So tell us what's going to happen. All of a sudden, one day, you'll be analog and one day, you'll be digital, and if you don't have the right electronics, you're out of luck?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, that's the long story short, yes. For a lot of consumers, though, we're already digital. So for most consumers today, they've already purchased a digital television like 50 percent of Americans or you already are watching many of the broadcasters who already broadcast in digital television.

So you know, it's not a real - just everything changes all at once. What will happen on February 17th or September 8th, as you mentioned in Wilmington, all the analogs will be turned off. But digitals are already streaming right now which is great for consumers, but they do need to make sure that if they're watching the analog signal, they know what to do prior to those dates.

FLATOW: Now, when that date comes around, if you have a digital television, you don't have to have a cable box to watch digital on many stations. Correct?

Ms. POLLOCK: Exactly. I think this is something that consumers are less familiar with that you're going to get crystal-clear digital and maybe high definition if you have the set and tune in to the right channels on these dates, and so this is great news for consumers.

FLATOW: So you could have your old rabbit ears still hooked up and get a high-definition channel, some of them even better than what you get on cable.

Ms. POLLOCK: Oh, yes. It's going to be wonderful. I actually watched TV that way now at home. I have a beautiful HD set and get all of my high definition signals over the air for free.

FLATOW: Are you still putting tin foils on those rabbit ears?

Ms. POLLOCK: Not as much as I used to.

FLATOW: It is a different kind of signal. It's more - instead of fading in and out, it would be more all or nothing, I think.

Ms. POLLOCK: It certainly is. A lot of the problems with the analog signal does not happen with digital. So ghosting, a lot of the sort of waving in and out and snow that you got with analog, you don't get with digital. Digital comes in crystal clear so you aren't doing the, oh, you're going to stand up in this direction, and you'll actually get a signal, and that's one of the huge benefits of the new digital signal.

FLATOW: And if you have an old television that is analog, is there a way for you to get a converter box?

Ms. POLLOCK: Yes. This is a very simple solution to make sure that your old analog set that you watch over-the-air television continues to work. It's a digital to analog converter box. It basically translates this new digital signal into analog so that your current TV can still recognize it, and these boxes are available everywhere.

They're in a lot of big box consumer electronics retailers all the way down to your local like Wal-Mart and stores like that. So they're available everywhere from about 50 to 70 dollars. They're online, they have 1-800 numbers, and really exciting, the government is providing two 40-dollar coupons to help offset the cost of these boxes. So it'll be very easy for everyone to get these and keep using their old sets.

FLATOW: So you can just log on to a website and apply for this coupon and then take it to the radio TV store.

Ms. POLLOCK: Yes. It's dtv2009.gov. So it's a government website. You go on, fill out your information, and your coupons will be in the mail in the next several weeks.

FLATOW: Well, it's like five gallons of gasoline.

Ms. POLLOCK: Exactly. It's wonderful. It's the best deal in town.

FLATOW: Let's talk about, how far can you be from a TV station to get a digital signal if you want to do it like you do with the rabbit ears? Do you have to be close by?

Ms. POLLOCK: No, it's a lot like it is with an analog signal now. So consumers need to think about if they watch TV now, it's going to be very similar to what they're doing already. We have a website called antennaweb.org. We work with the National Association of Broadcasters on the site. And you can actually type in your exact address, everything about your location, and it will tell you exactly what signals you'll be able to get in the digital world.

And so I think, you know, it does vary. It depends on you know do you live in a tower that you're on the 10th floor or are you in a basement apartment. So you know, there's really no exact science for if you are this many miles from a tower. It really depends on the terrain, on what's around you. So this website will help any consume type in all of the details. They will ask if you are in a tall building, if there are big trees next to you, and it will tell you exactly what stations you'll get in the digital world.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can help out some consumers. Hi, Tammy, in Springville, New York. Hi, Tammy.

TAMMY (Caller): Hi! Well, we just got a converter box. We live in an area where the cables couldn't go this far, and we can't get a good satellite dish image. And when it's coming in, it's great but when it's not, it's either all gone or just jarring to watch pictures just wiggle around.

FLATOW: Yes, it's all or nothing with digital.

TAMMY: Yes. Then with the analog, you could get the (unintelligible) picture, at least.

FLATOW: You could, at least, watch the wavy picture and the snow and everything else.

TAMMY: Yes.

FLATOW: But this, there's nothing if you don't get it.

TAMMY: Well, it's nothing or it just does weird things.

FLATOW: And you can't get satellite hooked up either.

TAMMY: We live in a very wooded area. Unless we're going to deforest this part of New York, no, we're not going to get it.

FLATOW: We're not suggesting that. Well, I guess there are some people who are not going to get - you know be satisfied, Megan, are there?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, I think that - I mean much like the analog signal that you know I get, I think she's not saying that she used to get a great analog signal either. That is one of the pieces with digital because it's much more an all or nothing. So you know, if you were willing to sort of watch this terrible fuzzy analog picture, the chance that you're going to get a full crystal clear digital picture is slim to none but it is a problem that you're not going to get anything potentially, but you're not typically going to lose signals that you used to get.

FLATOW: Tammy, how do you get Internet connection?

TAMMY: Through dial-up.

FLATOW: Oh, you're still in dial-up.

TAMMY: Oh, yes.

FLATOW: You don't even have a DSL line. I was going to say just watching TV...

TAMMY: Well, my son calls us Amish, but with electric.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. Good luck to you. Maybe you know what the dirty little secret may be. You're not missing anything.

TAMMY: Well.

FLATOW: All right. Good luck. Thanks for calling 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to another caller. Tim in Alexandria, Virginia. Hi, Tim.

TIM (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

TIM: Quick question. I was wondering - I heard that some of the channels are going to have to be changed. I know that they're going to digital, but I mean I've heard that channels 2 through 13 and anything above 56 will have to be in a new channel. Is that true?

Ms. POLLOCK: Some of the channels will change numbers 'cause right now, what happened is the government's actually leased both of the spectrum, there's analog and digital spectrum for the broadcasters, so that right now, they may be broadcasting their analog on the channel that you're always used but the digital may be on a different channel. All of that will start to work out as they begin the transition. Your broadcaster is certainly going to let you know so as you're watching, you're not suddenly just going to be lost. They will start to re-brand if they're going to start to be on a different channel or move back over.

One of the things that we suggest if you've ever gone through and programmed and had your TV search through all the channels it gets. You may want to redo that just so you make sure, but certainly know that your broadcaster, if they start to change their channel. You know most news stations sort of have the bug down on the corner. It'll start to let you know that there will be some movement as the analog spectrum goes back to the government, and they're on the all-digital. They may change back on their numbers.

TIM: OK, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. This is certainly not something consumers ask for, did they? I mean I don't remember a great demand, hey, we have to have high-definition television.

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, no. And that's not exactly why this all came about. The reason that this is happening - certainly, one of the benefits is better picture and better sound to television. This is a much better transmission. The reason this happened really is so that this analog spectrum that the broadcasters have been using for years goes back into the government as it's been auctioned off.

Some of it is going to be used for public safety which this is a great piece of our broadcast spectrum and being able to use this for increased communication will be very important. We'll also be able to use - they've auctioned a lot of this off. A lot of money has been raised, and all of this has been auctioned off to companies that are going to have new wireless innovation. These are really exciting benefits that go well beyond just a better picture and sound, and that's really why this transition is taking place.

FLATOW: And just about any television you buy now is digital, right? Even the cheapest TV that you're going to buy is...

Ms. POLLOCK: Absolutely.

FLATOW: So you can't go wrong if you buy any set. It will be right.

Ms. POLLOCK: Right. And there's some really inexpensive sets. I think people have the misconception that you need to go out and buy a 42-inch flat screen and hang it on your wall. If you walk in to any retailer now, whatever TV is on the store shelf, you know it may look like the old set you used to have, kind of big and bulky, that has a digital tuner inside. So all you have to do is pick up that set and you'll be fine.

FLATOW: They're confusing high definition with digital. I think it's what the confusion is.

Ms. POLLOCK: Yes. And high definition is the best available digital. It's the higher-quality digital standard. It is a type of digital television. It's just the best quality. And so it's not required but it's certainly an option, and we found about 75 percent of consumers who buy a new TV have purchased a high-definition television because I mean the picture quality is spectacular.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get one quick call in. Hi, John in Boise.

JOHN (Caller): Howdy.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JOHN: We've got a high-definition TV and we got our signal through dish, and we ended up having to go buy - we've been through five different digital antennas now because none of the local channels - and I don't think this is true in any jurisdiction. None of the local channels are carried in HD by the satellite providers, and even though we live within a bike ride of downtown Boise, we can't pick up all of the local digital broadcasts. We get maybe five of ten channels no matter what antenna we try. I'm wondering if the broadcasters are running these on low power now until they make the switch to save money or what's going on here?

FLATOW: I've got about a minute a left. Maybe we can get an answer. Thanks for calling. Are they doing that? Running low-cut power?

Ms. POLLOCK: Yes. Well, I think there will be some changes as they start to run their one digital station at full power so it's still may not be running in a 100 percent full power up until February 17th. So you may see a lot of changes between now and then.

FLATOW: But there will be that change. What's the date again? We have to know.

Ms. POLLOCK: February 17th, 2009, converter box, cable or satellite or a DTV by then, and you'll be good to go. Do it now and you'll start to receive the benefits of digital.

FLATOW: Right after the Super Bowl it happens.

Ms. POLLOCK: Absolutely.

FLATOW: So if you go early, you can get ready for that Super Bowl coverage. Thank you very much Megan for taking your time to be with us.

Ms. POLLOCK: Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Megan Pollock is senior manager of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association.

We're going to take a short break and come back and change gears.

We're going to talk about you know eating locally, they say you should eat locally and then you would save energy by you know shipping the food on whatever. Well, it turns out that if you change your diet, you can do a lot more than by eating locally. We'll tell you how to change your diet and save some of that carbon footprints. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation's Science Friday from NPR News.

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