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.