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Digital TV conversion plan is a recipe for confusion

Within the next few months, Americans will face new challenges when it comes to viewing TV over the air. Many have switched to cable or satellite, but the rest have several new issues that are not being adequately disclosed to the public.

Many stations have been telling us we will need a new "set-top box" (STB), so that we can view digital TV stations on our analog televisions. While this will provide some help for people who cannot afford new TV sets, and part of the cost will be met by the $40 government coupons, it is nothing like the whole story.

Besides TVs, many people have VCR or DVD recorders, which are useful for time-shifting and permanent recording of off-air programs for later viewing. There are also several low-power TV stations that will not convert to digital next February because of the high cost of the equipment. Many of these are Spanish-language channels, some are in English.

Some of the DTV converter boxes are capable of passing through analog channels while converting the DTV channels to Channel 3 or 4. But the analog pass-through STBs are not readily available here, so most people who have already bought their two STBs with their coupons do not have this feature.

There's a more insidious loss of functionality that goes with the transition. Many VCRs use a VCR Plus function to set up recordings in advance, and your newspaper "TV Week" lists the VCR Plus codes for each program. These will no longer work for basic TV after the transition, since they are entirely geared to the analog channels and cable.

Also, many VCRs and DVD recorders have an automatic clock-setting function, which works from the signal broadcast by the local PBS analog channel. This, too, will be unavailable after the transition. These devices cannot get the signal from a digital channel.

In short, after Feb. 17, 2009, we will be back to the "dark ages" before VCR Plus. Remember those jokes about people being unable to figure out how to set their VCRs to record a program? They'll be back, with a vengeance. If you have an STB without analog pass-through hooked up to your VCR now, the automatic time setting will already be non-functional, and you will have to adjust the clock settings manually, probably every week.

Recorders with TV Guide On-Screen will also cease to collect programming data after the transition, so that every program you want to record will have to be entered manually. TVGOS is convenient for setting a program to record up to a week in advance, without entering VCR Plus codes.

Finally, the available program guides such as the weekly "TV Week" guide in the Sunday Tribune, and the TV Guide magazine need upgrading. TV Guide only includes the prime time programs, making it harder to set programs in working hours to record for later viewing.

"TV Week" has abandoned 24-hour listings and only shows the main analog channels, plus cable. The movie listings at the back omit movies shown between midnight and 6 a.m. We need a new "TV Week" that lists the digital channels and those that go digital in the next few months, 24/7. The KBYU and KUED magazines only include prime-time programming for the additional channels.

You can go to the Web sites for the stations you view, or to TV Guide online, but it's less convenient than the "TV Week" program grid each Sunday in your newspaper, and not everyone has online access, especially the elderly, underprivileged and poor among us.