Facts for cable customers


[IMPORTANT UPDATE: An FCC rule, adopted September 11, 2007, will allow continued access to local stations for cable customers—including those with standard analog cable service—following the transition to digital TV in 2009. For details, see FCC eases DTV transition for cable subscribers.]

By Steven Sande, Digital TV Facts

If you have cable service, the switch to digital TV broadcasts may be the last thing on your mind.

Despite what you may have heard, not all cable customers are in the clear when it comes to the digital TV transition. While many media reports have suggested that cable-TV households will continue to receive all local stations after the switch, the full story is more complicated.

If you already have digital cable—a package offered by most cable systems as an upgrade—you and your TV should be just fine.

An estimated 60 percent of cable viewers, however, still have analog cable, despite recent gains in digital penetration. Here’s the hitch: When the transition to digital TV broadcasts takes effect in 2009, cable operators will not be authorized to “downconvert” higher-quality digital broadcasts into lower-quality analog form.

Digital cable: More channels, higher bills

Cable television companies have spent billions to upgrade their systems to digital. Some have already moved to all-digital service, and telephone companies are rolling out new digital TV services, including video on demand (VOD).

Digital service lets cable operators offer more channels, often at premium prices—which hasn’t scared away viewers hungry for more high-definition programming to watch on home theater systems equipped with the latest in big-screen LCD or plasma TVs. HDTV prices have dropped significantly, fueling further demand for digital cable.

Consumers who remain satisfied with cheaper analog cable packages may increasingly feel pushed toward the digital tier as cable systems move their favorite channels from analog to digital. (Digital cable service may require leasing either a digital cable box or—for “Digital Cable Ready” TVs—a CableCARD. Interactive features, including pay-per-view (PPV), are not available without a cable box.)

But analog holdouts may find that the worst is yet to come.

Next: Millions of viewers may lose access to some local stations »

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