Analog. Digital. HDTV. 720p. 1080i. They are a jumble of letters and numbers that will ultimately change the way you watch television come September. But what does it all mean?
Television has come a long way since its grainy early days. Over the years, screens have gotten bigger, pictures have gotten clearer and color made our living rooms brighter. Still, the basic technology has remained pretty much the same. But for more than a decade, the TV climate has been changing quietly; changing the way the signal gets to your home and the quality of it when it arrives.
To understand what's going on and what will happen September 8 in southeastern North Carolina and what will be complete across the country come February 17, you must understand the basic science of TV. What we do in our studio on Front Street is captured by cameras. The signal converted into bits of electricity that flow through cables up to the top of a tower above our building. There, a microwave shoots the signal across the Cape Fear River to a 2,000-foot tall tower in Winnabow. From there, another transmitter shoots more waves in every direction through the air with your TV set as the ultimate goal.
Up in the air and all around us are millions of waves moving around in what's known as the electromagnetic spectrum. They are everything from radio and TV signals to visible and non-visible light rays to stuff that sounds as if it came out of a SciFi movie like gamma rays. But let's just focus on the lower end of the spectrum: The part that carries radio and TV signals. Those signals travel in straight lines and only as far as the transmitter can throw them. Live too far from the transmitter, and your reception starts to fade. Have a lot of trees or big buildings in the way, and you get static. Cable, fiberoptics and satellites have helped eliminate those line-of-sight problems. But these analog signals can still be grainy and dull, even if they arrive in your home digitally. So that's where the changes begin.
For years now, TV stations across the country have invested millions of dollars to rewire and install new digital equipment like the new cameras in our studio and the new transmitter on our tower. The goal is to make the signal we send out digital from the start and to use a different part of the radiomagnetic spectrum. But what does that mean to you?
"The biggest difference will be the signal quality between the digital and the analog signal," WWAY Chief Engineer Billy Stratton said. "The digital signal will not have any snow or static or anything like that like you've seen in the past with the analog stuff. The sound will be better on digital as well, because it will be in surround sound."
A lot of people think that they're gonna get HDTV when this switch happens. What's the truth about HD?
"There's no mandate to go high definition by the FCC." Stratton said. "The only thing we have to do is go digital. But there are HD shows on, and they'll be adding those as we go. But there's no mandate to be in high definition. The biggest thing is if you've got an analog signal now that you're getting off antennae, you're gonna need a converter box... that the government is providing coupons for to give you, I think, $40 off of the purchase of one. And you'll hook your antenna to this and then your television to this, and that'll act as a digital tuner, and you'll be able to get all the signals."
Now that you know what the digital switch is, you may be wondering why it's necessary and why it's coming early to southeastern North Carolina. We will tackle those issues Tuesday on NewsChannel 3. And later this week, we'll look at how the switch may affect you and your family, including whether you'll need a new TV or special equipment to watch TV.
For more information, including how to get coupons for digital converter boxes, check out our Digital TV Switch page.