Commissioners Met To Compare DTV Notes

FCC's McDowell unusual private meeting to discuss lesson's learned from Wilmington DTV switch.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell surprised reporters Tuesday with the news that the five commissioners had met last week to discuss their lessons learned from the Wilmington early DTV switch and their respective visits to markets with high analog TV viewership.

It was the first such collective meeting of the five commissioners outside the monthly public meetings in McDowell's tenure, he said.

Sunshine rules prevent three or more commissioners from meeting outside of public forums to discuss matters before the commission, but apparently they can get together to talk about process, and McDowell said there was a staffer from the general counsel's office to monitor the get-together.

Among McDowell's takeaways from his eight road trips to markets in Alaska, Idaho, Oklahoma and Montana, were the need for multiple, simultaneous soft cut-off tests and a sort of DTV infomercial that could be roadblocked on stations.

McDowell said he didn't think the FCC had waited too long to start emphasizing issues like converter-box set-up or antenna reception, but also said he thought broadcasters, cable and satellite operators in each market should team on an infomercial to help viewers navigate converter box set-up and antenna reception issues.

Driving that, he said, was the need for education campaigns tailored to each market, saying a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't cut it. For instance, in some markets satellite companies carry the local TV stations, and in others they do not. In the latter case, viewers will need converter boxes even if they have satellite service.

For instance, he said there was local-into-local satellite carriage in only one Montana market, while at least two DMA's in the state were larger than the entire state of Pennsylvania. He said the transition would be messy, but "we'll get through it. That was why he was emphasizing an education effort that combined more hands-on help from third-party groups with a greater urgency about getting and trying converter boxes.

Broadcasters are free to transition to digital 90 days before the Feb. 17 date so long as they notify viewers, and numerous stations are doing so to avoid having to make the technical switch in the dead of winter. He cited one Montana NBC affiliate that was going to make the switch Nov. 10 for that reason.

McDowell also said it was incumbent upon broadcasters to make sure their viewers knew how to stay tuned, as it were, to their stations, saying it was obviously in their self-interest to do so. "It's going to be incumbent upon the broadcasters ultimately to educated their viewers and work to make sure their over-the-air viewers have the right equipment to continue to see their channels after Feb. 17."

There has been some complaints that the FCC is basing its estimates about signal loss based on tall, remote-controlled, roof-top antennas and that there may be much more signal loss than predicted. Asked if the FCC had underestimated the problem, McDowell said he didn’t think the FCC had ever “carved an estimate in stone.” and said that it would wind up being a market-by-market, house-by-house issue that will depend on topography and placement of antennas. 

“That is part of my message on lessons from the road,” he said. “We all need to be flexible, including broadcasters down to the DMA level, in dealing with these loose ends and unique challenges.”