Andrew Martin Says DTV Call Center Operators Need More Training

Many need help on issues like antenna positioning and converter box rescanning

The FCC's point person on the government-industry DTV call center says that operators will need to be given more training, and spend more time on the phone with viewers for the next wave of TV station analog cut-offs, which will begin April 16, if not sooner.

At an FCC public meeting on the state of the DTV transition, Andrew Martin, FCC chief information officer, said that one of the takeaways from the call center experience surrounding the Feb. 17 analog transition for over 400 stations was that call center operators would need to be better trained and be able to provide more detailed information about issues like antenna positioning and converter box rescanning.

He conceded there would be a trade-off in volume of calls handled if, as he anticipated, call times would likely go up from 4.8 minutes per call to probably double that.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps was quick to point out that that was not an implied criticism of the operators, but a reflection on the lack of time the FCC had to get them trained before the Feb. 17 date. He said he had visited the FCC's call center in Gettysburg, PA, and that the operators were eager for more training.

The National Association of Broadcasters has also called for more operator training.

Martin said that while the FCC had projected it would be handling about 600,000 calls in the days surrounding Feb. 17, the actual number was only about a fourth of that. He suggested that was because the data used to model that projection came from Hawaii and Wilmington, NC, both of which terminated all analog signals back in January and September 2009, respectively. The difference on Feb. 17 was that the vast majority of markets where stations pulled the plug-all but 17-still had some full-power analog signals, so it was not a cold turkey cut-off.

One of the other takeaways from the calls was that there was a high percentage of calls from Spanish-speaking households.

While the call volume may have been much less than the FCC predicted, Copps said, the commission still needed to be prepared for millions of calls.

One of the points being hammered home in the FCC meeting was that the Feb. 17 analog cut-off only affected about 15% of the TV viewing population, and mostly in smaller markets, with 85% in big markets still to make the switch.

While no "frogs fell from the skies," as one broadcaster summed up Feb. 17, "or anvils, either," added Association for Multiple Service TV President David Donovan Thursday, the FCC and industry were not out of the woods yet, Copps suggested.

When asked to predict how many calls could come in around June 12, Martin said anywhere between 500,000 and 3 million.

Copps said the FCC should overbuild the system rather than lowball it, suggesting to plan for the higher number. Conceding it was far from an exact science, Copps said, for his money, with millions of consumers still unprepared (Nielsen says about 4.5 million), he was all for erring on the side of too much, "and thank heavens afterward if that does not happen."