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Originally published February 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 8, 2009 at 8:30 PM

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Brier Dudley

Digital TV is leaving VCRs behind

There really is a victim in the switch to digital television — overlooked, unappreciated and unlikely to benefit from any federal bailout.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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There really is a victim in the switch to digital television — overlooked, unappreciated and unlikely to benefit from any federal bailout.

That would be the humble VCR.

Antiquated as it may seem in the age of TiVo, YouTube and the iPhone, the trusty VCR is still used in at least 80 million homes, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

The firm estimates it will take a decade for VCR use to fade away.

Holdouts will be in for a shock, though, as TV stations across the country switch to digital broadcasts this year and their VCRs lose some of their capabilities.

The digital switch was supposed to happen next Monday, but Congress extended the deadline to June 12. Around here, every station but KCPQ confirmed they'll wait until June to make the change. KCPQ said it will decide this week.

That gives people with older, analog TVs more time to get ready for the switch — by buying a new TV, subscribing to cable or adding digital converter boxes to their sets.

If you're a VCR user, it's even more complicated.

I've heard from all sorts of people who started this process only to learn that their VCRs are disabled after attaching the converter boxes to their TVs.

Their VCRs can no longer be programmed to change channels to record a show automatically. Nor can they record a show while another is being watched.

They'll still perform basic functions — playing tapes and recording what's being displayed on the TV — but they'll lose their more sophisticated programming capabilities.

The problem is that nearly all VCRs use analog tuners that can't handle digital broadcast signals.

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Federal agencies behind the digital conversion suggest getting an additional converter box just for the VCR.

But that's only a partial solution: To record a show, you'll have to set the converter box to the right channel. If you want to record shows on two different channels in the middle of the night, you'll have to get up and manually change the channel.

In other words, VCRs are going to be so frustrating, most people won't use them to record TV anymore.

This will push more people to buy or rent digital recorders, in addition to the new digital TV hardware.

It must be irritating to the thousands of people who bought VCRs in the past few years. In 2006, consumers spent $45 million buying 759,000 VCRs, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Sales fell to 53,000 in 2007 and an estimated 6,000 units last year.

There are several digital-ready alternatives to the VCR, but they're relatively expensive.

Sony, Panasonic and other companies are now selling VCR/DVD combo recorders with digital tuners for about $280.

Another option is a TiVo with a digital tuner. They cost $300 plus a $13 per month service fee, although you can find them on sale for $250. (Sales of such digital video recorders have soared, the CEA said: doubling last year to an estimated 18 million units and sales of $2.9 billion.)

Cable customers may rent a digital video recorder for $10 to $15 per month. You also can use a computer to record TV broadcasts. There's no monthly fee, but the hardware may cost $500 or more.

That's what John Wald, a Boeing employee in Seattle, decided to do after Costco stopped carrying VHS tapes.

Wald already had a PC. He spent $100 on a plug-in tuner and $45 on an amplified antenna that gets good reception from his home near University Village.

He said he's using Windows Media Center software that "works pretty darn well."

Eric Jaeger, a remodeling contractor in North Seattle, said he's a big fan of free digital TV broadcasts. They look great on his flat-panel TV.

But he's still trying to figure out which device should replace his VCR. He's interested in one that can still play his family's big VHS collection and doesn't have a monthly fee.

"I'm not willing to pay for my broadcast; I don't want to pay someone to set my VCR," he said. "I just want basic time-shifting."

It's too bad you can't use the government-issued $40 converter-box coupons for some of these things.

Speaking of which, it's still unclear whether the government will authorize more coupons.

The U.S. Department of Commerce unit managing the digital TV project is waiting on the proposed federal stimulus bill, which includes $650 million for more coupons, spokesman Bart Forbes said.

Hit pause and rewind here.

In January, when the Commerce Department asked for enough money to finish the coupon program, it said $250 million should be enough.

Somehow the signal's breaking up: I can't make out how tripling the coupon funding will rebuild the economy (or support President Obama's "Buy American" campaign).

At least it's becoming clear who will benefit the most from the combination of converter-box subsidies and the obsolescence of VCRs: Chinese electronics manufacturers.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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