Broadcast DTV Lives Up to Hype

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With all the teeth gnashing, hair pulling and garment rending over the switchover from analog to digital TV (T minus 49 days and counting), the big picture tends to get lost in the kerfuffle: broadcast digital TV looks way better than analog. I discovered this a couple of weeks ago when I helped my parents make the transition, a story that joined all the others as part of Spectrum's special countdown coverage The Day Analog TV Dies (good riddance).

When I was down in Louisville for Thanksgiving, my dad asked me to help him switch his 20-year-old Sony TV from analog to digital. We went to RadioShack with his discount card for a converter box, but the card had expired the day before. Why bother expiring these cards before the switchover date? I answered my own question a couple of weeks later when I went back home to tend to some family matters (can you say â''economic stimulus for the consumer electronics industry?â'').

The TV in my parentsâ'' house holds the same special place that it does in a lot of homes that havenâ''t hitched a ride on the Info Highwayâ''itâ''s the fireplace, the gathering spot, the focus of the living room and of leisure time. So when I arrived at the old homestead ahead of the the replacement discount card, I knew it was important to do whatever it took to help my parents make the switch.

I rifled through the Sunday paper, looking at ads for LCD TVs. Sure, I could have gone out and paid full price for the converter box, but the countdown to Hannukah had also commenced and I put that $60 converter box expenditure into my own twisted gift-giving calculations. Their old TV was small, 19 inches, so bargain hunting was easy. There is a Circuit City (on life support, like all Circuit Cities) near their place, so I drove over to browse the pre-Xmas, post-Chapter 11 bargains. I found one almost immediately: a 22-inch Zenith. It was a floor model, on sale as is for about 60 percent off--$150. I didnâ''t hesitate. The picture (piped in through the storeâ''s cable feed) was at least as good as the Toshibas surrounding it and certainly better than the old Sony.

I bought the TV and a universal remote (the TV was sold as is, as in someone had lost the remote) and went back to my parentâ''s house. They were thrilled with their early Hanukkah gift. But when we turned it on, we got nothing but static. Duh. This TV needed an external DTV antenna. So I went back to the local RadioShack and bought a $35 amplified VHF/UHF/FM indoor antenna.

Set up was a little funky, considering that the $10 universal remote couldnâ''t control the Zenithâ''s menu. I had to navigate the setup using the buttons on top of the set. I attached the antenna to the TV, plugged it in and turned it on. I made the TV run through an auto tuning routine. On the first pass, it picked up four channels; my parentâ''s old TV could pick up eight. That didnâ''t seem right, so I ran the auto tune routine again, 12 channels this time. One channel, WAVE 3, had three channels associated with it instead of just oneâ''a crystal clear HD channel for its regular broadcast, and two other channels, including a 24-hour weather channel and a music channel, which had been discontinued (already? I guess the programming experiments will continue like this for years to come). Still, certain channels that had come through clearly on the old set were totally staticky in that digital, pixilated jigsaw mess of picture many DTV converts will become accustomed to in the next few weeks. So I ran the auto tune routine again. And again. Finally, after some maneuvering of the antenna to put the rabbit ears in the optimum position, we had 27 channels, all of them amazingly clear.

I was shocked. The picture was at least as good as the one I got at home with an HD cable box hooked up to my Olevia monitor (no, it doesnâ''t have a tuner and two years ago, opting for the tunerless monitor saved me about $500). My parents had never seen a picture so clear. And so, while I have been watching HDTV for a while now, I was fascinated, like a child with a new Xmas, I mean Hanukkah, toy. These signals were coming through the air? For free? And many of the channels had added new channelsâ''all of them in beautiful HD color. For less than $200, my parents not only had their first new TV in 20 years, they had 27 HD-quality channels. Hanukkah Joe did good this year.

So far the only complaint is the slow motion pixilated picture break up that happens for reasons unknown. You can be watching a show, when suddenly the picture breaks down into small boxes that slide around the screen. Could it be the â''bargainâ'' TV gone haywire? Could it be simple signal interference? Maybe someone here has some ideasâ'¿.

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