How the Unknown Digital TV Transition Could Screw You

As cable companies move toward their own digital transition, your tricked-out home theater setup could lose favorite TV channels and functionality.

For months, you've been hearing about the impending digital TV transition now scheduled to happen on June 12; in fact, you probably prepared for it long ago. This transition marks the time when over-the-air broadcast stations will finally make the switch from analog to digital.

Meanwhile, however, a second, much-less-discussed digital transition is already under way among the nation's cable providers. This separate upgrade may cause you to lose TV channels that you've come to expect, or to pay more in monthly equipment fees to your cable provider to get the TV--or it may render useless some of your precious home-entertainment setup.

Read on for a detailed breakdown of what's happening, why it's happening, how the cable operators are dealing with the situation, and how all of it affects you. Let's start by looking at how to tell whether you'll be affected by the change.

Warning Signs That You're in Cable Trouble

People tend to assume that they are completely set for the digital TV transition if they have a cable subscription. And that's true--but only for the broadcast channels (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and a clutch of others).

But have you tuned into a cable TV station recently and noticed a message announcing that it's no longer available? Or have you read marketing material from your cable provider that says you'll need a cable box on each of your TVs in order to view your favorite channels? Both are indicators that analog stations you know and love could cease to be available to you.

This less-publicized cable digital upgrade by some cable companies is already affecting the range of popular cable channels that typically fall between channels 20 and 90, including TV addict essentials such as AMC, CNBC, CNN Headline News, ESPN, History, MSNBC, MTV, Spike TV, TNT, and the USA Network. Depending on your cable company, these channels may be available only if you have a cable box.

Prior to the digital upgrade, such channels usually did not require viewers to rent an extra-cost cable box in order to view shows. Instead, you could plug your coaxial cable from the wall directly into any of the following:

  • An analog or digital television
  • An older digital video recorder such as a Replay or TiVo (Series1 and Series2)
  • A DVD recorder (or, gasp, a VCR)
  • A Microsoft Windows Media Center PC
  • A PC equipped with a TV tuner

If you now run your cable directly through any of these devices, you may be affected. See what plans your cable company has.

In some cases, you'll simply be inconvenienced: You'll now need to have a cable box and an IR blaster attached to it in order for your device to communicate with the box to change channels, but you'll still be able to view and record analog video.

In other cases, though, you may be out of luck. You might not be able to record or even view your channels. However, companies like TiVo are working closely with Comcast--the cable provider deploying the digital upgrade most widely--to make its legacy devices as compatible as possible.

For example, if you're a single-tuner TiVo Series2 subscriber, you'll need to put a cable box between your wall connection and your TV. But since TiVo has updated its IR blaster database to control Comcast's equipment, you can tune the cable box via the far superior TiVo remote. If you're a Series 2 dual-tuner customer, however, some of those dual-tuner channels will no longer be viewable. This is because you have only one input on the TiVo, which means you aren't allowed to have more than one cable box connected. (Lost your IR blaster accessory for TiVo? The company will sell you a new one for $7.)

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