Digital Transition: Backwards Compatible or Obsolete?

If you own a DVD or VHS recorder purchased before March 2007 it may contain an analog “NTSC” tuner. Why does that matter? Because when the FCC’s long-anticipated analog-to-digital deadline arrives June 12, 2009, your DVD recorder or VCR may not work the way you are accustomed to: set the program, load a blank DVD or VHS tape and let the recorder’s built-in timer tune to the station on which the program airs. That’s not the only change consumers should anticipate, either. As of February 17, 2009, cable subscribers who do not have high definition television sets or compatible recording devices will either end up with a temporary analog feed, effective through February 17, 2012, or an all-digital feed necessitating digital-to-analog conversion boxes designed for cable subscribers who use analog components.

If all this sounds confusing, it gets worse.

After the switchover, those who intend to use a DVD, DVR or VCR recording device containing an analog tuner in conjunction with a newer HDTV or HD-enabled satellite or cable box may be in for more headaches than anticipated. Depending on a component’s date of manufacture and whether or not a digital-to-analog converter is used, the option to record onto an analog-style device may no longer exist.

In order for your existing VCR or DVD recorder to communicate with your HD satellite or cable box, a digital “ATSC” tuner is a necessity. Your VCR or DVD recorder must send a signal to your cable or satellite box telling its tuner to change to the station you wish to record on a particular hour, day and date. The problem is, digital tuners were not widely available in DVD and VCR recorders — nor adequately marketed to inform the public of this necessity — before a FCC mandate requiring digital tuners went into effect March 1, 2007. To go on using an analog DVD recorder or VCR, you will need a cable or satellite box that is capable of analog output.

While the current crop of HD satellite and cable boxes have, for the time being, preserved the ability to record onto analog devices, analog recorders are incapable of changing the channel on an ATSC satellite or cable box. So while it may still be possible to program an analog recording component to turn on at a particular date and time, it may not be as convenient. Setting each device to the correct channel in anticipation of a recording session may become a necessity. If you forget to do so, or attempt to watch one channel when a recording is set to begin on another, you may not record what you set out to capture in the first place.

There’s no telling how long support for analog recording devices will continue, but it is doubtful that HD cable, satellite or TV sets built after 2012 — little over three years away — will emphasize backwards compatibility. Hooking up an ATSC-only cable or satellite box — or for that matter, an ATSC-only HDTV — directly to a NTSC-only DVD or VHS recorder will mean no picture or audio recording at all.

The FCC mandate that ATSC tuners begin appearing in recorders came too late, while decisions to phase out support for NTSC recorders are likely to come too early. Those who expect, for instance, to go on using pre-March 2007 DVD recorders until they wear out, hoping to get an additional 4-5 years of use before going “all digital”, probably shouldn’t count on it. By the same token, if you intend to gradually incorporate HDTV and/or HD cable or satellite as opposed to being forced into the costly position of upgrading all components simultaneously, the time to begin looking into your options is now. Go on using your standard definition TV, cable or satellite box for too long, and the next generation of HDTV or HD cable or satellite equipment may lack backward compatibility.

Of course, those who watch only off-air broadcasts using an analog TV and so-called rabbit ears will require only a digital-to-analog converter. This set-top converter, which for acceptable reception ought to be connected to a compatible roof or attic antenna, can be hooked up via a splitter to a conventional analog VCR or DVD recorder, and will be capable of switching channels without disrupting your ability to watch another program providing that you purchase a second converter box. A dual converter box setup is one way for off-air viewers to go on using familiar analog TV sets alongside an existing VCR or DVD recorder with minimal expense.

When contemplating the decision to convert from analog to digital gradually or radically, here’s something to keep in mind: If your analog style VCR or DVD recorder already has a lot of mileage and seems likely to wear out before you complete the conversion process, anticipate that it may be difficult to locate a replacement recorder that can convert digital input to analog output. That’s why taking the plunge into a full HD setup might be better than the alternative: requesting government coupons for digital-to-analog converters, a subsidy program that provides up to two $40 discount coupons per household. So while it is tempting to hang on to conventional cable, satellite and soon-to-be obsolete analog TVs, VCRs and DVD recorders, the advantages are likely to be short lived.

Personally, I can’t shake the frustration of discovering that not one but two not-so-ancient DVD recorders in my home lack the necessary digital tuner despite FCC rumblings of such conversions as far back as 1995. Why were manufacturers permitted to go selling analog-only TVs and recorders knowing that as few as two years post sale they would lose much of their functionality? It seems hardly coincidental that I’m left with nearly $400 worth of lightly used, near-obsolete equipment that wasn’t accompanied by warnings on product packaging, in user manuals, by retailers, mainstream media or the FCC. Each of us have had ample time to to realize that VCRs are going the way of the 8-track tape. Not so much time to wave DVD recorders, less than three years new, goodbye.


5 thoughts on “Digital Transition: Backwards Compatible or Obsolete?

  1. A lot of the information stated in this article is false. Most importantly, if you don’t have a high definition television, you can still get a digital signal. The only reason you would need to worry about the change from analog TV to digital is if your source is antenna (as opposed to cable or satellite). If you use an antenna: simply go to walmart, buy the cheapest digital converter box you can find (around $50), and then mail in for the government rebate which is either $40 or $50. Hope this helps!

    Joe Kreydt


  2. socialcritic


    While I appreciate your feedback, the first sentence in your comment doesn’t clarify where the inaccuracies are. This article is heavily cited in reference to material that has been published on the need for digital tuners in recording devices. My complaint is that manufacturers have been too slow to offer them. Not until the Federal Communications Commission mandated the presence of digital tuners in recording devices effective March 1, 2007, did such products routinely include digital tuning circuitry according to an AV Science Forum post “DVD Recorders and the Analog to Digital Transition”, a FAQ which I linked to the original post. Essentially, this means that consumers with recorders just two or three years older may find they have become obsolete long before they actually wear out and break.

    Paragraphs 1, 8 and 9 do, in fact, refer to what is already widely known about the digital conversion in February: that those who own an analog television set who wish to continue pulling in off-air broadcasts without the benefit of satellite or cable will need a digital-to-analog converter box. The gist of the article, by contrast, deals with recording devices that are equipped with analog tuners which, under certain conditions, may prove less functional than anticipated. This is the part of the story that doesn’t get much press time in the mainstream media. Consumers deserve an opportunity to evaluate the ramifications of continuing to rely upon analog-tuning VCRs and DVD recorders.

    On the assumption that you skimmed the article and missed it, here’s an excerpt that may shed light on what may come as a rude awakening to those who are not expecting it:

    “There’s no telling how long support for analog recording devices will continue, but it is doubtful that HD cable, satellite or TV sets built after 2012 — little over three years away — will emphasize backwards compatibility. Hooking up an ATSC-only cable or satellite box — or for that matter, an ATSC-only HDTV — directly to a NTSC-only DVD or VHS recorder will mean no picture or audio recording at all. ”

    The first group of people who will not be impacted are those whose satellite or cable company is down-converting digital signals so that their analog TV sets will continue to work in conjunction with their analog-tuning satellite or cable boxes, DVRs, VCRs, and DVD recorders (at least through 2012). The second group who will not be effected are those who have opted for a digital upgrade in the past year or so and do not have any older analog-only VCRs or DVD recorders in their setup. The “headaches” are most likely to strike those who are under the impression that they can upgrade from analog to digital in a piecemeal fashion, maintaining a mix of digital-only and analog-only tuning devices in their home theater setup. Upgrading recording devices, for many nontechnical users, is an unanticipated cost associated with “going digital”.


  3. Jude

    Dear Social Critic:

    THANK you every so much for writing the FIRST comprehensive article on how DTV transition will really affect users. I subscribe to so many technical magazines and they all have focused their articles on what the “over the air” “rabbit ears” users should do.

    NONE of them have addressed the exact problem we encountered and which you explain here. We are RCN subscribers in New York. With money tight ware are FORCED to rent converter boxes and I can not watch one channel and tape another even though I’ve tried to split in every way possible. Its true that I have to remember to set the channel to on the converter to what I want to tape and leave the power one.

    WHEN you call the cable company all they say is pay even more a month and we will give you a converter that will allow you to tape and watch TV. HOWEVER when I ask if I can “buy” such a box on my own instead of paying another 18 dollars a month they refuse to assist you.

    There is no way for the average user to understand if I need a Converter with a DVR in it or if I can just but a DVD recorder with an ATSC in it and will that DVD recorder know how to talk with the Motorolla DCT 700 that RCN gave us.

    YOU ARE the first person to at least give a person a basic understanding to maybe start doing some research and even with your great article I don’t know if I buy a DVD R with an ATSC tuner and I split the signal comming out of Motorolla DCT 700 to have one cable for the TV and one for the DVD R will it work.

    STill thank you for trying to really inform us. I appreciate it!


  4. Mark

    I wish I had read your blog sooner. It’s true. The cable company, Comcast, convinced us to make the transition to digital, but did not tell us that our analog VCR’s would cease to function normally. I use my VCR to automatically record shows that I want to watch at a later time. However, the converter boxes that Comcast sold us do not work together with my VCR. The installer came into my home, installed the new box on top of my VCR and then my VCR stopped working normally. The VCR contains an analog tuner, and is unable to change the channel with the digital converter box installed.

    Comcast will tell you that the VCR will still function, which is true, but it will only function in a limited capacity. It can play and record the signal that the converter box provides. But changing the channel requires a human to press the buttons on the remote. It will not do so automatically.

    The solution was to buy a DVR, or digital video recorder, and Comcast was happy to provide me with one. It’s a fine machine. But I didn’t not exptect to have to buy it. I was happy with my old VCR. I keep it clean and it runs well.


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