By Scott Jacobs


If you watch TV, and who doesn’t, it’s hard these days to escape ads warning that on February 17 broadcast television will undergo the most radical transformation in its 67-year history. All the current analog TV transmitters will go dark and TV stations across America will forevermore send out a digital signal––that only TV sets with a digital tuner can see.

This is not the end of the world. Eighty-nine percent of American households are hooked up to cable or satellite dishes where the transition will be relatively seamless. But an estimated 13.5 million homes are not. Those viewers as well as countless others who watch their favorite programs on spare sets stashed in garages, basements, work rooms and other odd nooks must now step up to the new digital age.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are 400 million TV sets in America. Over the last decade, the Electronics Industry Association says its members have sold 116 million new digital widescreen TV’s to forward-thinking viewers who anticipated this day would come.
The other 284 million TV sets (99 million of which are in storage) are old time “picture tubes” encased in a box and equipped with “rabbit ears” to pull analog TV waves out of the air.

Yes, those that are connected to cable or digital satellites that will weather the storm, but sooner rather than later, most of these old TVs will find their way into the the alley – where they are likely to implode.

Digital Television

Broadcasters are carefully tiptoeing around public confusion over the difference between digital television (DTV) and “high definition” television (or HDTV).

Technically, the digital switchover is simply a re-assignment of airwave frequencies accompanied by an upgrade in broadcast transmission from analog to digital equipment.

The segment of the radio wave spectrum reserved for TV transmission is being lifted from a low frequency to a higher frequency range (to make way for new uses by mobile phones and other communication devices). New transmitters are being installed to send out the signal as digital data rather than analog airwaves; and broadcasters who make the switch are being given enough new bandwidth to transmit four channels in the space they previously used for one.

With a simple $60 DTV converter box, you can plug your old antenna into the DTV box, plug the box into your TV, and voila! You are getting digital television.

Press a button on the menu screen––didn’t know you had a menu screen? You do now––and in place of the dozen or so VHF and UHF stations you used to get in Chicago you will find more than 30 channels (most of which are variations of the same old ones.)

With the new DTV conversion box, snowy pictures or “ghosting” are a thing of the past. Either you get a channel or you don’t. But if you do not have an HDTV television, you are not getting true “high definition” television. And what you are getting is likely to confuse you.

High Definition Television

“High definition” television (HDTV) refers to a way of recording television programs that has been simultaneously coming into vogue over the last decade. With hi-def TV, you get pictures that are as much as six times sharper than standard TV and digital audio, including 5.1 Dolby “surround sound” which, if you have five speakers, is pretty bleeping cool.

A hi-def picture is most recognizable by its widescreen format. Instead of the old 4 X 3 boxy look of standard TV, it is displayed in a 16 X 9 format similar to movie screens. (On older TV’s, HDTV programs appear with a black bar above and below the picture in what is called a “letterbox” format.)

Almost all of the new hi-def TV sets are flat screens. They take up less real estate in your home entertainment center (formerly known as “the den”) and consume far less power. But receiving a DTV broadcast signal is not the same as receiving a high-def picture – unless you have a high-def TV.

To Convert or Not to Convert

To ease the transition to digital television, Congress has set aside $1.5 billion for the Commerce Department to issue consumers a free coupon worth $40 toward the cost of a DTV conversion box. To date, 42 million coupons have been issued, but only 18 million have been redeemed. If you can resist the sales pitch to add on a digital antenna (which you probably don’t need), that reduces the cost of the DTV box to about $20.

But there are downsides to settling for a conversion box, especially for elderly viewers and others who have so far resisted all the other new digital gadgets. The programming menus vary from one DTV box to another. If you scan for digital channels in one part of the room you may get a different set of options than if you moved the TV to the other side.

In the olden days of television, a 17” Sony Trinitron was considered a pretty good-sized TV set. Put a DTV box on it and the widescreen letterboxed version fills only about 15”. Switch between channels and you’ll discover that each broadcaster presets their own aspect ratios so some programs appear double letterboxed and cropped into a 13” picture. Try to go into the menu supplied with the DTV box to adjust the aspect ratio for each channel and you’ll feel like you are assembling a child’s toy without instructions on Christmas Eve.

Bart Forbes, a spokesman for the U.S. Commerce Department, admits the DTV conversion kit is a stopgap measure, and he points out the coupons are not a magic bullet. The coupons were aimed at preventing poor, rural and older citizens from losing their TV signals entirely. They were not intended to let viewers replicate the HDTV experience.

Jim Morrissette, the video guru for Kartemquin films, doubts whether the millions who buy the DTV converters will be satisfied. He suspects many people used to just turning their TV on and off will be confused by the menus and wonder why the picture no longer fills the screen. Then he asks the obvious question: “Why would someone buy one of these when they can get a new 19” HDTV for under $200?”

Indeed, the size––as well as quality, aspect ratio and back panel connections–– of television sets has improved dramatically in the last year even as prices have plummeted. The average flat-panel TV is 26” or 32” today, and it can be purchased for roughly the same price as a 17” cathode-ray tube (CRT) television set 20 years ago. The Best Buy special this Christmas was a 19” Dynex HDTV for $199.

At what point do we all throw out the old to get on board with the new?

What To Do With Your Old TV

Americans have a love affair with their TVs. We keep them on average 13 to 15 years and we save them to pass on to our children when we get new sets. But that behavior is changing. In 1999, Americans threw out 16.5 million TV sets. By 2005, the last year on record, that number was up to 27 million.

With the digital switchover, there is less reason than ever to save the useless sets, but it’s not so easy these days to just throw them out.

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation refuses to pick them up. Goodwill doesn’t want them. (“Our mission is to recycle. If we can’t repair and resell them, we can’t take them,” a spokesman said.) And the Salvation Army has no firm policy on what to do, but is not encouraging drop-offs.

Although the EPA lists 57 places on its website that recycle electronics in the Chicago area, only three of them take “picture tube” televisions. Two of those charge 50 cents a pound for the service––the average 21” TV weighs 40 pounds––and the last couldn’t be reached for comment.

In 2007, Chicago opened a new Electronics Recycling Facility on Goose Island to pick through old computers, hard drives, cell phones and other digital accessories to salvage parts. But it too has no use for the CRT’s because of the danger of handling them, the toxic materials inside and the lack of an after-market for the parts.

The Hazards of Cathode Ray Tubes

Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are what made television possible in America. They are picture tubes that project electronic TV signals from a small receptor at the back through a cone-shaped glass enclosure that amplifies the signal onto the TV screens we watch. The screens are covered with phosphors that translate the electrons into an image, then the tube is sealed to prevent distortion and protect viewers from its hazardous effects.

When a CRT is discarded, everything that made it functional makes it hard to recycle. First, you have to break the vacuum seal at the neck of the tube to slowly let air back into the vacuum. If you simply break the tube, the vacuum will implode sending shards of glass in all directions.

Next, you must remove and recycle the outside screen. Once that is accomplished, the tube glass can also be re-used, but first it must be cleansed of its lead lining and any traces of barium, both toxic substances. The process is slow and must be done manually piece-by-piece. As a result, “glass to glass” recycling of old TVs is rarely done in America, or elsewhere for that matter.

Few Recycling Options

As it stands now, only 18% of discarded TVs ever reach a recycler. The vast majority of these (about 80%) wind up being shipped overseas to Asia, South America and other developing countries for resale or materials recovery.

Inside the United States, the EPA estimates only two percent (that’s less than 100,000 TVs) are broken down in “glass to glass” recycling plants while another 16 percent go to smelters for lead recovery or recycling companies that cull out the plastic and metal parts.

Thinking of just throwing them into a landfill? Think again. In 2001, the federal EPA issued guidelines prohibiting the disposal of old TV sets in landfills. In 2002, it began fining violators. Eleven states have passed laws banning the practice. Last July, the Illinois legislature joined them.
Although the Illinois statute does not take full effect until 2011, many municipalities have already adopted the ban not only because the sets are not bio-degradable but because they pay for landfill by the pound.

A Modest Proposal

The bleak prospect for disposing of old TVs calls for some creative thinking. Lately, I’ve notice in antique stores a number of old radio consoles refurbished into cabinetry by furniture restorers. Maybe we can recycle our old TVs into new uses the same way.

Back in the 70s, I recall a gimmick video came out with a yule log burning on a TV screen. There are tens of millions of unused fireplaces in America, all just the right size. Maybe we can put the old TV in the fireplace, stick a VCR under it and run the “Yule Log” VHS tape on an endless loop.

It will serve as a constant reminder that while the future always beckons, the past is hard to get rid of.

Note: Figures cited above come from a July 2008 report titled “Electronics Waste Management in the United States” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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