What’s funny about the digital-TV transition? Not much.
When full-power broadcast stations throw that switch at midnight on Feb. 17, 2009, and shut off their analog signals, the potential for disaster isn’t just a Y2K-type hypothetical. Some 8.8 million households are “completely unready” for the switch to digital (according to the latest Nielsen estimates) and run the risk of losing their TV reception unless they act now. Serious business, folks
So hats off to Talkshow With Spike Feresten for finding some laughs in all the dire talk.
Back in September, the Fox late-night show aired a parody of a public-service announcement about the transition that pokes fun at one of the demographics most at risk for losing TV reception.
The spot shows an adorable and utterly befuddled elderly woman attempting to follow voiceover instructions for installing a DTV-to-analog converter box. As the announcer offers helpful tips (“simply obtain a 300 OHM to 75 OHM transformer or balun”), the woman gets herself tangled up in cables and at one point tries her luck with putting her remote control in the microwave before pausing to ask, “Will all of this make Jack Benny come back?”
When the video hit Hulu, the video site co-owned by NBC Universal and News Corp., and instantly shot to the top of the Most Popular clips (it remains the first listed under “Most Popular All Time”), no one was more surprised than Feresten.
“What’s neat is we had no plan to shoot it,” Feresten told B&C last week (see related story, p. 3). “We had three extra hours we had paid for with cameras and had nothing to do. [Executive Producer] Mike Gibbons had the idea, so we slapped it together and shot it. I’m very surprised. These things make no sense to me; there’s just no way to predict what hits.”
Sure, it gets some cheap laughs by making fun of old people. But it also got a lot of people to watch an essentially accurate and informative PSA about the transition—something the FCC may want to note.
The commission, of course, has been working to inform American viewers about the digital switch, particularly seniors, people in rural areas and other hard-to-reach populations—not exactly the sort of folks who are likely to stumble on an amusing yet helpful clip on Hulu.
But the FCC has also been trying to reach the young and wired through its dtv.gov Website in hopes of deputizing them as DTV educators. And as the student-outreach slideshow demonstrates, with its melodramatic portraits of viewers registering “shock,” “disbelief” and “sadness” at the thought of a world without TV, the commission isn’t above making light of the subject.
So we asked the folks at the FCC what they thought of the Feresten PSA and if they’d be open to a similarly edgy approach to DTV education.
“Our DTV outreach and education efforts are focused on reaching the groups we’ve identified as being most vulnerable in the transition,” an FCC spokesman told us. “Chairman [Kevin] Martin is open to novel and creative ways to raise awareness within these communities. As [he] has said, if someone comes to us with a good idea for getting our message across to the people we want to reach, we’ll consider it seriously.”
We hope so. Although Martin’s time as chairman is waning, we know from his performance at last week’s Federal Communications Bar Association dinner that he’s got the comic chops for the task.
Among several parting shots at his foes in the cable industry, he landed a nice one on Comcast when he noted the number of empty seats and quipped that the economy was so bad that “Comcast can’t even afford to hire seat-warmers to not laugh at my jokes” (a reference to the cable giant’s reported attempt to pack an FCC hearing with people off the street).
And he closed with a Top 10 list of his career plans that included becoming a wardrobe consultant for Janet Jackson and playing his doppelganger, Harry Potter, on Broadway.
Come to think of it, with a little mousse and designer frames, Martin could even pass for Spike Feresten.
With John Eggerton