DTV Transition Calling


I am told the Obama FCC and NTIA transition teams had a fairly cordial and productive meeting inWashington last week with the representatives of the government and broadcasters and cable representatives and lobbyists–yes the Obama folks talk to registered federal lobbyists, they just don’t appoint them to high posts in areas where they have been recently pushing their positions.

The subject of the meeting was the DTV transition, which is gaining on broadcasters and the government like a cop car in a moonshiner’s rearview mirror.

Holding such a meeting was a no-brainer, of course, but I felt some pride of authorship when I heard about it, even if it may have been misplaced.

Back in the summer, I asked Obama advisor and former FCC Chair William Kennard whether the transition team planned to put someone in charge of drilling down on the DTV issue in the space between the election and inauguration, given that the new president would be inheriting the DTV transition with only three weeks until D, as in DTV, day. He said it was a good idea and he would suggest it to the campaign.

By contrast, a representative for John McCain’s campaign said he had no such plans. Turns out he didn’t need them. But I digress.

The DTV meeting dealt with a number of issues, but one of the main ones was the need for enough call centers and staffers to handle questions about the transition. The early analog cut-off in Wilmington, NC, revealed some issues that could have those phones ringing like Armistice Day.

Broadcasters have staffed some of their own call centers on an ad hoc basis, associated with their various analog cut-off tests. 

Broadcasters have also been sending folks to the government’s 1-800 number (1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009), now reportedly manned by at least 50 people. I’m told the FCC told the Obama folks that 50 won’t be enough to handle the volume of calls it expects over issues like converter-box re-scanning and changes in DTV contours. An FCC sourcecounterred that "there are certainly more than 50 people answering phones."

That FCC call-center deficit has some broadcasters miffed since they have been sending folks the FCC’s way and now are being told that is not going to be enough. Broadcasters and others may have to step in to help.

If so, those broadcasters, the FCC, and other stakeholders will need to figure out an action plan, and do it between now and mid-January, with Christmas and Hannukah and New Years Day in between to make things that much more interesting. While the FCC often grants deadline delays to others around holidays, it appears not to have the same option.

The FCC also has to come up with a plan by Jan. 15 for allowing broadcasters to keep their analog signals going 30 days past the DTV transition date after legislation to that effect was passed this week. Fortunately it has been working on that for awhile, according to a source.

A source familiar with the meeting with the Obama transition people, including former NCTA President Tom Wheeler, said it was collegial, rather than a case of the Obama folks trying to pressure the stakeholders. That would make sense. Both Obama transition folks and broadcasters want this transition to work.

For its part, the FCC has already gotten some help in focusing. On Friday, the soon-to-be chairs of the Senate Commerce Committee and House Energy & Commerce Committee wrote FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and told him to focus on a smooth DTV transition in his last few weeks in the big chair, rather than on contentious issues for which there is no statutory deadline to get something done quickly.

While the FCC and NTIA and broadcasters have long resisted a DTV czar, saying the DTV transition education program instead needs to be flexible and locally tailored–thought that appears to presuppose that the two are mutually exclusive. Perhaps call centers is one place ("are one place," "are several places"?)  where a coordinator might come in handy.

Some broadcasters are said to be putting pressure on their lobby, the National Association of Broadcasters, to figure out the best way to deal with the call center issue. 

NAB was not commenting on the meeting, at which it had representatives, including NAB President David Rehr.