It's too early to say that the increasingly staggered digital transition has belied the doomsayers, but it's beginning to look like it. The early returns from the National Association of Broadcasters, the FCC and B&C's own informal polling of stations suggests that stations have received a steady stream of calls from viewers, but nothing they can't handle.
Re-scanning for new DTV channels appears to be one of the top questions, and something stations and the FCC have been able to resolve on the phone. Reception issues remain a question mark, but only time will tell how big a problem that will be.
Moving the hard date, and spreading the transition over what will wind up being almost 10 months—from Wilmington last September to the June 12 hard date—brings it more in line with Congress's original plan of allowing markets to transition individually whenever 85% of the viewers could receive a digital signal either over the air or via cable.
As it stands, with 641 stations having pulled the plug on analog, even the most DTV-unready market, according to Nielsen, still has 88% of households able to receive a DTV signal, well above the original threshold. At presstime there had been no flood of calls to phone banks, and as far as we can determine, no disaffected viewer mob had shown up on the steps of the Capitol with pitchforks and torches. This lack of a maelstrom probably reflects the dwindling number of over-the-air-only viewers and the successful efforts to reach them.
Broadcasters, cable operators, and various organizations from the AARP to local governments deserve credit for an education campaign that made sure almost everyone knew the transition was coming. And broadcasters deserve a shout-out for being flexible when thrown that last-minute June 12 curve ball. Legislators and regulators should remember that flexibility, which happened at a time when the additional energy costs and inconvenience came against a backdrop of economic turmoil.
While we can't agree with a pair of Republican legislators who continued to heap criticism on the decision to move the hard date, we do agree with their request that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration put analog-only homes at the head of the line for DTV-to-analog converter box coupons. Last week, the NTIA signaled it would do so if it gets jammed up again.
As written, the date-move bill allows anyone whose coupons have expired to reapply for them. The kinder, gentler NTIA is right to prioritize those who are in analog-only homes, for whom the boxes are a lifeline rather than a convenience.
It will take the NTIA another three weeks or so to clear out the backlog of requests. But cross your fingers; the transition as currently constituted looks from here like a bumpy but passable road to the digital future.