Big cable takes advantage of DTV confusion

Cable companies are gearing up to use the DTV transition as an excuse to get current and potential subscribers onboard.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
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David Katzmaier
2 min read

The DTV coupon program allows you to continue watching free over-the-air TV, without needing a new TV or a cable subscription. DTV2009.gov

In case you didn't know, the upcoming DTV transition from analog to digital television shouldn't affect cable subscribers at all. But that's not stopping cable companies from using the increasingly well-publicized and misunderstood transition to encourage potential customers to cough up more money.

Take this report by HD Guru Gary Merson, who called NYC-area cable provider Cablevision posing as a regular customer and was told that "due to government regulation," the company would no longer carry analog channels. As Gary points out, this is patently false--nothing in the government's mandated transition prevents cable companies from continuing service as-is. They may, however, decide to force analog-only subscribers to get a digital subscription and the requisite box, which of course adds a monthly box rental fee and opens up the possibility of customers ordering lucrative Pay-Per-View and Video-On-Demand services.

Merson also reports that another area provider, Time Warner Cable, has reduced the number of analog, unscrambled channels--the ones you can watch by plugging the cable directly into the TV, without the need for a cable box--available on its system from 74 to 13, keeping only the local broadcast stations such as ABC, CBS, PBS, etc. A TWC spokeswoman told Merson that even those broadcast stations will have to go digital in February 2009, "requiring all subscribers to pay $7.35 a month for cable box for each television in your home" according to the report.

In a separate report from TV Technology magazine, cable giant Comcast is said to be targeting the 6 to 8 million people in its geographic footprint who currently get their television signals over the air, and will begin a comprehensive marketing campaign related to the transition.

While the February 17, 2009 cut-off will cause just those TVs that receive programming via an over-the-air antenna to go blank, even the FCC anticipated the DTV transition's impact on cable subscribers in its FAQ: "If a cable company makes the business decision to go all-digital (meaning it will stop offering any channels to its customers in analog), it must ensure that its analog customers can continue to watch their local broadcast stations. This may require customers with analog televisions to get a set-top box." In other words, the DTV transition may affect cable subscribers after all, in the familiar form of increased fees.

Meanwhile, of course, anybody with an analog TV can get a converter box for as little as $10 or $20 after coupon, and not have to subscribe to cable.

What do you think? Has your local cable company used the DTV transition as an excuse to raise fees or misinform customers about digital TV? Sound off in the comments section.