DTV Transition Survival Guide

How switching from analog to digital TV tranmission changed TV viewing

Hispanic couple carrying new television
Hispanic couple carrying new television. Getty Images, Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc, Blend Images, 82795800

June 12, 2009, was landmark point in TV history, as all full power over-the-air analog TV transmission signals on channels 2-13 and 14-69 in the U.S. ended. After that date, all TV stations had to make the change to digital-only TV broadcasting. The only analog exemption allowed after that date was for over-the-air TV broadcast programming was that delivered via Low Power Stations and Translators which served some rural and urban community markets. However, many of those have since transitioned to digital broadcast as well. Needless to say, the DTV Transition had an enormous impact on how consumers received over-the-air TV broadcasts, which is still in force today.

What the Transition to Digital TV Meant for the U.S. TV Viewer

Mediasonic Homeworx HW180STB DTV Converter Box
Mediasonic Homeworx HW180STB DTV Converter Box. Image courtesy of

After the DTV Transition took effect those residing in the U.S. that owned analog TVs or older HDTVs equipped only with standard NTSC tuners and received their TV programming over-the-air via an antenna, could no longer use those TVs to receive TV transmissions.

In order for TV viewers that still wanted to receive TV programming via an antenna, there were two choices:

  • Buy a new TV before the transition date that had a built-in ATSC tuner. This tuner allows reception of over-the-air programming from stations broadcasting digital TV signals. All TVs that currently come with analog NTSC tuners, must also now include a digital ATSC tuner as well.
  • Buy a Digital-to-Analog Converter Box (similar to a cable box) that will convert the new digital television signals to an analog signal that can still be accepted by your current television. However, keep in mind that you will need a separate box for every television in your household that has an analog NTSC tuner unless you don't mind watching the same channel at the same time on all of them.

NOTE: In both of the above options, you can still use the same indoor or outdoor antenna you used for receiving analog TV signals if it is in good working order.

There is no requirement that you have to purchase a special "HDTV" antenna. If your current antenna delivers good reception with your current analog channels, it should do fine with the digital signals as well. However, if you do need to buy one, there are plenty of options.

The DTV Transition and Cable

Cox Digital Cable Mini-Box For Basic Cable Diagram
Cox Digital Cable Mini-Box For Basic Cable Diagram.

Cox Communications


Since Cable TV and Satellite Boxes (even the newer digital and HD boxes) all include(d) provisions for digital-to-analog signal conversion for use with analog televisions, if you were (or are) either a current subscriber, or signed up before the cutoff date, your TV viewing would not be interrupted on TV that the Cable or Satellite Box is connected to.

With regards to cable subscribers that currently do not have a need for a box for basic analog cable; the cable companies are not required to discontinue this service unless they wish to. If analog cable service is discontinued, you may have to use a cable box supplied by your cable provider.

However, keep in mind that the trend towards digital-only cable is going forward anyway, irrespective of the analog over-the-air TV cutoff date, and is not a government requirement.

This means that cable companies can continue to offer both analog and digital cable services, or switch to all-digital service at their own pace.

Also, many HDTVs are equipped with QAM, or Clear-QAM, tuners. These tuners allow direct access of basic unscrambled digital cable channels that are not a part of pay-per-view or premium cable services. However, an increasing number of cable systems are scrambling all of their channels, so even if your TV has a QAM tuner, it may no longer work.

How the DTV Transition Affects Video

Video Resolution Chart - NTSC To HDTV
Video Resolution Chart - NTSC To HDTV. Image via Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

In addition to the switch from analog to digital TV broadcasting is the benefit of receiving TV broadcast signals in high-definition. Although at the start of the transition, many TV stations were not offering HD programming, now almost all do.

In fact, the FCC approved 18 video resolution formats that could be used to broadcast digital TV signals, and all digital TV tuners are required to compatible with all of them.

However, to make things easier for consumers, TV broadcasters settled on four resolutions:

480i/p — This is considered as standard definition (SD). 480i represents 720 pixels running across the screen and 480 pixels running from top to bottom. Each row of pixels is transmitted alternately, while 480p signals are transmitted progressively.

720p — This is classified as a high-definition (HD) resolution and represents 1280 pixels running across the screen and 720 pixels running from top to bottom. Each row of pixels is displayed progressively. TV broadcasters that use this option include ABC, ESPN, and Fox.

1080i — This is a high definition (HD) format that is represented by 1,920 pixels running across the screen and 1,080 pixels running from top to bottom. All odd numbered rows are transmitted first, followed by all even numbered rows. This means that half the pixels are transmitted at a time. Most TV broadcasters use this format, such as CBS, NBC, and the WB.  Most cable services use 1080i as their resolution of choice as well.

1080p — Surprisingly 1080p (same pixel numbers as 1080i, but with all pixel rows sent progressively) is not used by TV broadcasters as it takes more bandwidth to transmit. However, since cable and satellite providers have more bandwidth capacity to work with, there are channel and program options that provide content in 1080p.

What this all means is that even if you have a 1080p or 4K Ultra HD TV when it comes to over-the-air TV broadcasts, you are viewing 720p or 1080i content that has been upscaling to match your TVs display resolution.

In addition to resolution, another change resulting from the DTV transition was the change it TV Aspect Ratio. All HDTVs have a 16x9 aspect ratio, which is wider from left to right than the old analog TV standard which was 4x3.

Although almost all TV content made since the transition date supports the 16x9 standard, there are still decades of content that was made to conform to the previous 4x3 standard that is still transmitted post DTV Transition. What this means is that on a 16x9 TV, you will see black bars on either side of the image due to the fact there is no information to fill the wider space.

How the DTV Transition Affects Audio

Audio Return Channel Illustration
Audio Return Channel Illustration. Image provided by

The video isn't the only thing that has changed with the DTV Transition, so has audio.

Audio can be transmitted in two-channel PCM or in Dolby Digital, with support for up to 5.1 channels.

This means that if a TV broadcast contains Dolby Digital 5.1 and the TV receiving the broadcast can pass the signal through a digital optical output or HDMI Return Channel to a home theater receiver, you can listen to that TV broadcast in surround sound.

However, it must be pointed out that the Dolby Digital pass-through option is provided at the TV maker's discretion.

The DTV Transition — DVD Recorders and VCRs

Magnavox and Funai DVD Recorders
Magnavox and Funai DVD Recorders. Images provided by Magnavox and Funai

Most VCRs and DVD recorders made before 2007 have built-in analog NTSC tuners, thus were also subject to the effects of the analog cut-off date. However, this is only if your VCR and DVD recorder receive TV signals over-the-air. In this case, you will need a digital-to-analog converter box for each VCR or DVD recorder in your household - or each VCR or DVD recorder and TV pair.

What this means is that you can connect a digital-to-analog converter box to your VCR or DVD recorder, then route the signal from there to your TV, much the same way many do with Cable or Satellite Boxes.

Also, many DVD recorders don't come with tuners at all, and those that do come equipped with ATSC tuners. DVD recorders with no tuners are intended to be used with an external cable or satellite box, so having a built-in tuner is not needed for those units.

Another implication of the DTV transition is how it affected the ability of a viewer to record one channel on a VCR while watching another on an Analog television. Although the use of VCRs for recording TV programming has greatly diminished, if you still own and use one, and also have an analog TV there is a workaround if you are a little adventurous and aren't concerned with the gadget and cable clutter.

Digital TV Secondary Channels

OTA TV Channel Guide Showing Secondary Channels
OTA TV Channel Guide Showing Secondary Channels.



The DTV Transition not only brings the benefits of HDTV but offers both the broadcaster and viewers an added benefit — Secondary Channels.

In addition to a main High-Definition digital channel, local TV broadcasters have the option of providing viewers with one or more (sometimes up to six) additional channels using the same transmitter and station license.

For example, the main channel may be labeled 5.1 (perhaps a local network affiliate), others (channel 5.2, 5.3, 5.4, etc... ) may be used for other programming options, such as continuous news, weather, shopping, alternate language programming, or alternate network programming sources, such as METV, Antenna TV, ThisTV, and more.

The availability of secondary channels provides viewers more programming that they can receive via antenna without the need for broadcasters to build new stations. However, in most cases, secondary channels are broadcast in standard resolution as there isn't enough bandwidth for a single TV station to broadcast more than one or two channels in high-definition.

Digital TV Broadcast Reception

Television aerials and chimney pots with blue sky
Television aerials and chimney pots with blue sky.

 Getty Images, Andrew Holt, Photographer's Choice Collection, 85986071

When you purchase a DTV converter for an analog TV or buy an HD or Ultra HD TV and setup and connect an Antenna to receive TV programs over the air, you may find that some of your previously received stations may no longer be accessible.

This may be due to several factors, but one is that unlike analog TV signals, which slowly degrade over distance and geographic obstacles, Digital TV signals are transmitted in 1's and O's - in other words, on or off.

As a result, while you can still receive an analog TV signal that exhibits snow or otherwise poor picture quality if the station is too far away, a digital signal will started to exhibit artifacts such as Pixelation, Macroblocking, or just drop off entirely (referred to as the "Cliff Effect" if it doesn't have the power to supply a full strength signal to your location.

ATSC 3.0 — The Next TV Broadcast Transition

TV Transmitters and Communications Towers
TV Transmitters and Communications Towers.

Getty Images, Prime Images, Collection E+, 155429141

The current digital TV broadcast system has been in force for about a decade, but things are starting to advance again as the popularity of internet streaming and the demand for more 4K content sources is putting pressure on the current system.

As a result, a new approach to TV broadcasting has been approved for use and is slowly coming online with mass adoption by TV broadcasters and manufacturers expected going forward from 2020.

The technical name for this system is ATSC 3.0, but to make it more understandable to the public, the label "NextGen TV Broadcasting" has been adopted for marketing.

The core advances of NextGen TV broadcasting include the ability to broadcast in 4K resolution and immersive surround sound for reception via antenna, accommodate over-the-air internet broadband services for mobile and home capable devices, as well as improving emergency alert services.

So far, adoption of this new system is voluntary, but at some point, it is expected to replace the current digital TV broadcasting system entirely, which will mean another cut-off date. In the meantime, TV broadcasters have the option of transmitting in both the current and NextGen systems simultaneously.