FCC: NAB's $697M Not Enough

Chairman Martin pushes quotas, mandates for DTV campaign
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Last week, the broadcast industry agreed to commit $697 million of airtime and ink to DTV education—a sizable jump over cable's $200 million public service campaign. Those numbers, however, will likely not be large enough to head off FCC education benchmark mandates.

The NAB announcement drew praise from lawmakers, many of whom have been pushing broadcasters for more movement on the transition education front. But the FCC is expected to vote to adopt government-mandated PSA quotas, reporting requirements and other mandates by the end of this month.

The broadcasters' announcement came against a backdrop of Hill hearings last week that criticized the lack of coordination of the message going out to viewers.

At one hearing, in the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told legislators that he has circulated for vote a raft of DTV education mandates, including mandatory broadcast PSAs across a range of dayparts and requirements to report to the FCC on progress every 90 days.

While broadcasters don't welcome mandates, they could likely live with them if Martin secures the other part of his pitch to Congress—mandatory cable carriage of broadcasters' DTV signals. Martin told a House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee hearing audience that requiring carriage would drive the adoption of digital TV by changing the message from preserving the status quo to gaining new channels.

Martin has already circulated an order mandating multicast must-carry for a vote by fellow commissioners. He was unable to muster a majority the last time he tried to get a vote on multicast must-carry.

Much of the broadcaster education campaign unveiled last week had been outlined previously, including a speaker's bureau and a DTV road show featuring a couple of trucks done up to look like TV sets that will crisscross the country between now and February 2009, when the plug is scheduled to be pulled on analog TV. In fact, NAB President David Rehr emphasized in a press conference last week that this was “phase two” of an education campaign that had generally been underway since the beginning of the year.

Perhaps that's so, but don't expect to see PSAs on the DTV-to-analog converter box subsidy program anytime soon.

Barrington Broadcasting CEO James Yager said he'd been told by one Congressman at a recent Hill hearing that the converter box campaign should start “right away.” Yager pointed out that the boxes were not yet available. The government subsidy program for the boxes launches in January 2008.

The NAB's $697 million figure came from media planner/buyer Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG), which the association employed to steer the campaign. SMG calculated the value of the various campaign elements against the cost of the airtime, newspaper space or the impressions from face-to-face contacts. This figure goes along with the 98 billion “impressions”—a metric for “impact”—they expect to have generated by the campaign's end.

Two large elements form the bulk of the campaign, Rehr said. The PSAs are currently running and will include primetime airing. And the 100-day countdown effort accounts for over half the value of commercial broadcasters' $647 million total. PBS is also committing another $50 million in airtime, online time and more, including PSAs in all dayparts.

The NAB did not comment on how many of the PSAs would run in primetime, when broadcasters would generally be giving up the most valuable airtime, and the plan did not include a mandate to air primetime PSAs. A Starcom MediaVest researcher said estimates for primetime percentages would vary by market.

But even without that FCC mandate, Chris Rohrs, Television Bureau of Advertising president, said PSAs would run in primetime, adding it was a “no-brainer” and that broadcasters had a vested, financial interest in getting the message out. The campaign, he said, was about broadcasters' “vital economic interest” in “not losing millions of eyeballs.”

“This is our lifeblood,” Yager added. “If we don't survive this transition with almost the exact audiences we had, we have damaged our businesses irreparably.”

Almost a thousand TV stations and all the major networks support the campaign, Rehr said. The networks are even considering inserting DTV transition-related story lines into their programming to help get the word out. An episode of NBC's ER recently included a harried phone call at the admitting desk in which one of the staffers said they already had digital television; however, a spokeswoman for the show said that was not to plug the DTV transition, but instead to suggest they were being badgered by telemarketers.

E-mail comments to john.eggerton@reedbusiness.com

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