A Date Less Certain

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The task of educating viewers about the DTV transition looks to be a tougher and more complicated undertaking than many anticipated, including us.

It is turning out that while the hard date of Feb. 18, 2009, sounds reassuringly simple and solid, the reality is much more complicated and daunting. The digital transition seems to have more asterisks than a used car dealer's contract. Another key DTV transition executive, Meredith Baker, said last week that the converter-box coupon program is going well, but she is, well… going. Her exit makes it imperative that President Bush swiftly name a permanent chief to run the coupon program, preferably one who will go the distance.

Word last week was that Baker, who had been acting head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration—the government's top telecom policy adviser—was exiting because the White House wouldn't nominate her to the job full-time. The Bush administration is said to be eyeing an aide to Vice President Cheney to run out the DTV countdown clock in the NTIA post. We don't know enough yet to pass judgment on that move. At least it wasn't “Brownie.”

We do know this: All full-power analog TV stations must, by law, stop analog broadcasts as of Feb. 17, 2009. Now the asterisks: That date still holds unless a bill currently in Congress is passed, in which case stations on the border with Mexico would not have to stop analog broadcasts until 2014 so that their Mexican viewers would not be denied their signal.

Oh, and let's remember our friends to the north. Stations near the Canadian border might not be switching to digital on Feb. 18, 2009, either. Rather than send workers to the top of tall towers in the middle of winter in Maine or Montana, the FCC will give some stations the flexibility to shut off analog early, or decrease their coverage areas.

And speaking of decreased coverage areas, up to 5% of all households—about 5.5 million homes—are on the fringes of markets and may lose the ability to receive some of the TV station signals they have been getting. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin concedes that but points out that these are viewers who have been getting stations beyond the FCC's definition of a market and shouldn't have been getting them anyway. (Gee, it's too bad the commission couldn't find a way to fine them!)

And then there are all the low-power and translator stations, thousands of them, that won't be switching over to digital on Feb. 18 at all. Many low-powers won't be making the switch until 2012 or so. Consumer Electronics Association chief Gary Shapiro says low-powers serve less than 1% of viewers, but that is millions, too, many of them Hispanic TV watchers who tend to be the households that will need a specific kind of converter box that lets an analog signal pass through. They need to be told.

Problems are not as bad as they seem. Most people receive broadcast signals via cable or satellite providers. But millions of households still don't, including many occupied by the elderly, non-English-speaking and impoverished. Partly, that is why PBS is launching an education campaign with stars of This Old House to inform its viewers of the switch. To their credit, NBC-owned stations ran a half-hour special on the conversion.

Broadcasters argued against an FCC-mandated schedule of DTV education public-service announcements, and seem to have won a compromise victory by promising to eventually do more than the FCC's planned mandated minimum.

While broadcasters' opposition to PSA quotas was seen by the cynical as dodging a schedule of primetime PSAs that would eat into their prime ad sales hours, the complicated nature of the education program does argue for campaigns tailored to local markets, not handed down from Washington. It also argues for more government money for community outreach than the pittance so far appropriated, and more urgency from the stakeholders about that message as the DTV countdown clock ticks on.