DTV Shift: Messy but Manageable
Industry leaders expect success, but acknowledge there will be bumps
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/8/2009 2:00:00 AM
With only a few days remaining till the much-vaunted, long-awaited, several-months-delayed June 12 hard date for pulling the plug on analog and transitioning to digital TV, most predictions are for a manageable shift. But there will be bumps; some inevitable, some perhaps not.
Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps says that the commission simply wasn't able to accomplish, in the four months he has been in charge, what the FCC should have been doing these past four years—namely, more outreach and coordination for the effort.
The expected bumps include dealing with procrastinators who have not yet taken the steps to be digital-ready, viewers who have had trouble making the switch for reasons of language or finances, and myriad reception problems that will undoubtedly fall upon people who have done everything the government asked them to do.
According to the FCC, 756 stations have already made the switch, which leaves 1,030 stations, minus a handful transitioning between late last week and June 12.
President Obama weighed in last week, advising late-adopters to get on the stick “before it's too late” and saying that delaying the date allowed community groups “to educate and assist millions of Americans with the transition.” He added that the number of unprepared “has been cut in half.”
FCC commissioners and industry players alike are cautioning that the transition is not so much an ending, as a beginning of dealing with yet-unforeseen issues, along with knowns carrying an impact yet to be determined. On that list is how the first blizzard in Detroit—or unlicensed wireless devices, for that matter—might affect a digital signal more prone to interference than its analog predecessor.
At the FCC hearing on the transition, Copps admitted that his own converter-equipped set, which worked fine in winter, started to experience pixilation when the leaves came out and the wind picked up. David Donovan of the Association for Maximum Service Television said that was one of the challenges of the transition, and suggested that was behind broadcasters' concerns about allowing unlicensed devices to share the DTV band.
The FCC has already had some time to gauge the effect of the switch, given the stations that pulled the plug on analog Feb. 17. But those markets, at the direction of the FCC, still had at least one station remaining on in analog. As of June 12, all but nightlight service—and low-power stations—will be digital.
The general consensus at a June 3 DTV briefing at the FCC was that the sharper pictures, more channels, and spectrum reclaimed for emergency and advanced wireless services more than made up for the inevitable dislocation of some viewers in the transition.
But the “mop-up operation” post-June 12, the briefing continued, will be crucial. That will include identifying where the reception trouble spots are and helping viewers fix them or understand them if they are not fixable.
Keeping the Nightlight On
To help those analog viewers who have not helped themselves to converter boxes or DTV sets, at least 100 stations will keep on an analog nightlight service for up to 30 days past the June 12 date. The FCC was strongly suggesting that other stations join them.
Representatives of commercial and noncommercial broadcast associations have pledged to continue to push more stations to do so, though Donovan points out that it will be at some considerable extra cost.
But the vast majority of viewers have already been educated about what to do, according Jonathan Collegio, vp of the digital TV transition at the National Association of Broadcasters.
Former FCC chairman Dick Wiley, who long pushed for the digital standard and was boasting of the wonders of HD even before there was digital, remains cautiously optimistic that things will go well, but acknowledges that some viewers still won't be ready. Among Wiley's bigger worries is the critical need to quickly identify and help those viewers, a point FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell seconds.
But as with the last hard date, there remains concern, and even some anger, about the way the transition has been handled.
McDowell tells B&C that broadcasters were slow in “taking ownership” of the transition in each market, delaying an effort on the local level to educate viewers about nuts-and-bolts issues like converter box setup and new reception problems.
Amy Brown, president of the Community Broadcasters Association, representing low-power stations whose transition has yet to occur, tells B&C flatly that her stations are being “crushed under the heel of a government that is hell-bent on believing the digital transition is over.”
B&C checked in with a number of stakeholders—political and regulatory as well as industry—to get a final read on what they thought would happen on June 12, when the analog plug is pulled for good. Much of the commentary can be found at www.broadcastingcable.com .
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell:
“I think the transition will be messy regardless of when it occurs. We need to be focusing now on what will be our mopping-up mode and what we plan to do after the analog shutoff and how we plan to identify those consumers left behind and fix their situation.
I think there are a few things that the industry could have done differently to get people ready. I think earlier on there should have been more ownership within each DMA of that market…a lot of the talk and awareness we're reaching on a very general level, but the actual practical nuts and bolts of how to get yourself hooked up was not always being relayed market-by-market.
There was no rhyme or reason as to which market would be better prepared than another. Some smaller markets would be tremendously well prepared, some larger markets would be less well prepared. So the size or sophistication of the market really had no bearing on their preparedness."
Amy Brown, Community Broadcasters Association, which represents low-power TV stations who face their own DTV transition, though not on the same timetable.
"The CBA’s hope for the June 12th full power DTV Transition is that it will go smoothly and that the American public is not be further inconvenienced by delays or the process as a whole. Full power television operators have now had more than a decade to equip themselves and to prepare the public for this event.
We also hope that over-the-air television viewers across the country will continue to receive accurate and appropriate information about how to watch the thousands of Class A, LPTV and TV translators, which will continue to broadcast in analog after the June 12th full power transition to digital.
The unfortunate reality is that the Government and its partners in the full power DTV Educational Campaign have continued to disseminate inaccurate information about the true nature of the DTV Transition, which is damaging our Industry possibly beyond repair.
The CBA has worked tirelessly to blow back the fog of inaccuracy created by the multi-million dollar campaigns targeted at convincing over-the-air TV viewers that analog TV ends on June 12th. Despite all of our efforts, our Industry is still being crushed under the heel of a Government that is hell-bent on believing that the digital transition is over and a full power industry that has no impetus to provide any additional information other than that which serves their own strategic interests."
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) co-sponsor of the bill that moved the DTV date
"I am hopeful that the DTV transition on June 12 will proceed smoothly for a number of reasons. By delaying the transition, we have given Americans additional time to prepare for the switch, and the DTV legislation that was approved earlier this year allowed consumers to apply for replacement coupons if they were lost or expired. This was especially important for Texans who lost their DTV converter box coupons when they were displaced during Hurricane Ike.
I was also pleased to see NTIA had eliminated its coupon backlog so that all Americans would receive their DTV convertor box coupons in a timely manner. As a result of fixing the coupon program and also ramping up education and outreach efforts nationwide, we have cut the number of unprepared households by more than half I initially had reservations about shifting the digital television transition without a sound plan to inform consumers or address the converter box coupon shortage, particularly since so much effort, including my own, had been expended informing consumers of the original date. Working with my colleagues in Congress, we were able to address these concerns in order to help consumers whose coupons have expired, and allow TV stations that were prepared to move forward without the requirement of simulcasting. My support for the DTV delay was contingent on not seeking another delay in order to provide needed certainty and bring this transition to a conclusion."
Dick Wiley, former FCC Chairman, and member of the committee that proposed the digital broadcasting standard.
"I think thanks to government and industry there has been tremendous planning and monumental efforts to make June 12 a success. But having said that there are probably going to be some people who are left behind, mostly older, lower income and non-English speaking homes. The key will be to identify those people as rapidly as possible and get them the remedial help that they need, and I think we are set up to do that.
I am looking for reasonably good things on the twelfth. I am no looking for perfect, though I wish it was going to be.
If anybody’s set goes blank, they will probably call their Congressman, but if we can’t make this a success this time, it will never be. I feel cautiously optimistic.
Should the date have been moved? I don’t know and I don’t think anybody can tell. If it comes off perfectly, you can say it is because of the extra four months, or you can say, ‘see,” it would have come off perfectly four months ago.’ I do think the last four months, additional efforts were made and that ought to help. But if you look at the statistics. Well over 98% are aware, but that does mean that one or two percent aren’t aware, so there will be a few problems.
We are going to be way ahead of the world no matter what happens on the twelfth in terms of getting widespread adoption of this dynamic new technology by our population."
Jonathan Collegio, NAB's vice president of digital television:
NAB began a full scale DTV education campaign in 2006, at a time when many in Washington and beyond feared the transition could become a chaotic disaster that would be laid at broadcasters feet. NAB's Board of Directors showed incredible leadership in taking the reigns to ensure that fear would not become a reality.
Now, with more than 98% consumer awareness and 90% of affected viewers taking action, we’re seeing the fruits of our labor. And while we don't expect the transition to be perfect, broadcasters have successfully executed an unprecedented campaign, reaching our goal of making sure no viewer is left unprepared due to a lack of information about the switch.
In the end, no one deserves more credit than the industry that many feared would take all the blame. It's obvious that the power of broadcast television is alive and well and will continue to thrive in the digital age."
NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow:
“Our entire focus for three years has been to contribute to and build on unprecedented cooperation among all affected stakeholders and government to ensure consumers can seamlessly navigate the broadcasters’ digital transition.
We don’t intend to let our guard down now, and will continue to do everything we can to contribute to a successful completion of the transition on June 12th.”
Gary Shapiro, president/CEO, Consumer Electronics Association.
I’ve been working to support the nation’s transition to digital television for 20 years, so to come down to the last week before the final transition and be talking about fewer than 1% of the nation’s households not yet ready is amazing to me.
We have near ubiquitous awareness of the transition, thanks to a barrage of messages on the only medium that really matters to reach viewers now – over the air television. As representatives of the companies that invented DTV, CEA has been working tirelessly to educate consumers about the transition.
When I joined with my colleagues at NAB and NCTA to form the DTV Transition Coalition two years ago, we sat around a table at CEA and talked about how we would measure the success of our effort. We all agreed that inevitably, some consumers would wait until after the transition to take action, but so long as everyone knew what they had to do – whether they actually did it or not – our effort would be a success. I think the unprecedented partnership between the private sector and government on consumer education has been a huge success. Consumers love."
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein:
"If the DTV transition were a NASCAR race, six months ago, we were lagging behind, hitting walls, crashing and burning.
Since then, we got a pit stop and refueling from the Administration and Congress. We’ve got a new driver, rebuilt the engine, and empowered the pit crew. Today, we're zooming along and about to see the checkered flag." (former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin did take the NASCAR approach to the transition, putting the DTV transition message on a NASCAR that did, actually, crash and burn)."
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke:
"In the past four months, we've cut the unpreparedness numbers by more than half. Now, more than 97 percent of Americans are prepared for this transition. Perhaps more importantly, we know that awareness is incredibly high, near 100 percent, which is remarkable for any national issue. And more than 3 million households have not redeemed their coupons. That means we have a group waiting until the last minute, which might not be surprising considering that many of the unprepared are young people. We also have a group that just doesn't think we’re serious about the June 12 deadline. That's changing. In the last week, we've seen notable progress - applications for coupons have nearly doubled.
Certainly, we are continuing our aggressive outreach efforts to the most unprepared communities, as is the FCC, mayors, Congressional leaders and community partners who are all working with us to make sure people get ready. And we will continue to reach out after June 12. There will be some people who just won't act, and there are others who want to but can't. I know that during these difficult economic times, digital television might not be at the top of some families to-do lists. We're trying to do everything we can to make sure Americans have the programming and emergency information they rely on."
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