Digital Dilemma: Will Your TV Go Dark?

With an estimated 20 million households set to see the impact when analog televisions go dark next year, the federal government will begin mailing out $40 coupons next week to families, to upgrade their sets.

With the Feb. 19, 2009, digital conversion on the horizon, most Americans are ready for the switch, because they get their television access through cable or satellite service.

But those who have an old analog TV that relies on rabbit ears or roof top antennas for television programming, need to take action.

The industry is spreading the word, by airing public service announcements, but some consumers say they are confused about the switchover.

"About a quarter of people think that they have to throw all their sets in the trash — that's absolutely not the case," Consumers Union's Chris Murray told ABC News.

What affected consumers do need to do is buy a converter box, which will allow analog TVs to display the digital signal.

The government will actually pick up part of the tab, with gift cards that will cover the purchase.

"This is a coupon, good for $40, and we'll send two for each household that requests a coupon," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez explained.

To apply for the coupons or find out more about the program, click HERE or call 1-888-DTV-2009.

But how can you tell if your television set is ready for the digital age?

If you bought your TV before the fall of 1998, it's definitely analog. But if you purchased it after that date, there are other ways to find out.

If you don't have the set's owner's manual, you can sometimes tell by the TV's shape. If it's rectangular, not square, it's most likely digital. Or, go through the TV's set up menu with the remote, selecting "search for channels." If you see an option for digital channels, you have a digital set.

If you do have a manual, check out the page that lists the set's specs. It will say if it has an ATSC (Advanced TV Systems Committee) tuner or an NTSC (National TV Standards Committee) one. ATSC tuners are digital; NTSC tuners are analog.

The label can also be helpful. Many digital TVs and digital television equipment might contain the words "Integrated Digital Tuner," "Digital Tuner Built-In," "Digital Receiver," or "Digital Tuner," "DTV," "ATSC," or "HDTV."

If your television equipment contains any of these labels or markings, you should be able to view digital over-the-air programming without the need for a digital-to-analog converter box.

However, if your TV set is labeled as a "Digital Monitor," or "HDTV Monitor," or as "Digital Ready," or "HDTV Ready," this does not mean it actually contains a digital tuner. Therefore, you will still likely need a separate set-top box with a digital tuner, in order to view over-the-air digital programming.

With such a massive TV transition, some stores are mounting major education campaigns for those on the front lines: retail clerks.

ABC News visited five major chains on Friday to see what clerks are telling customers. All correctly told our producer she'd need a converter box, but all failed to mention the government coupons.

And, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which went undercover last fall at 132 stores in 10 states, 20 percent of clerks tried to get shoppers to buy new TVs they didn't need.

"We haven't received complaints yet about that, but we're certainly going to make sure that the consumer electronics stores are going to be in compliance with our rules, and that they're going to be informing consumers accurately about this," Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said.

The switchover is a year away, but the advice to consumer is to get tuned in now, before they get tuned out.