Hill Hot Over DTV Education 'Gap'

Congress says Wilmington shutoff showed lack of education; broadcasters counter that timing, message were right

Congress is getting worried that its worst DTV nightmare could come true: that millions of constituents will lose some of their TV signals, thanks to the law Congress passed to migrate full-power TV stations to digital TV.

That concern was newly prompted by the lessons learned from the Wilmington, N.C., DTV test. But should they have been learned before that? (For complete coverage of the DTV transition, click here.)

Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who chair the House Commerce and Telecommunications & Internet subcommittees, respectively, along with about a dozen other committee members, have told the broadcasters, FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) to start finessing their education campaigns to warn viewers that they might need a new antenna or to adjust their old one.

“The commission has failed to provide the American public with adequate information concerning the need for new antennas and/or antenna adjustments to receive digital broadcast signals,” they wrote in a letter to the FCC copied to the NTIA and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). They said a significant number of viewers could have problems.

But how many?

Martin's Fix

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has said that about 15% of markets will have at least one station with a significant change to its signal coverage area, and has proposed to fix that by adding signal boosters and repeaters. Even at the conservative figure of only about 10 million over-the-air-only households, that would still mean a million and a half people who either need the FCC's help to see TV or will have to take steps of their own. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein says as many as 2.2 million households might be without reception, at least briefly.

Shermaze Ingram, spokeswoman for the NAB's DTV education effort, said the association is concerned about antenna issues, but doesn't think it should have started educating viewers earlier about trying out the boxes. “I don't know that it was something that we deliberately waited to do,” she said, but added: “One thing we realized was that you can't message everything all at once with this campaign. We didn't talk about converter boxes until they were on store shelves. Consumers needed to first become aware that something was happening. I think it is actually a good time to be getting that message to consumers. It may not have been a message that would have been as easily digestible to consumers six months ago.”

The NAB made a point last week of touting DTV PSAs it was distributing to help folks figure out their antenna problems, and the NTIA's acting chief Meredith Attwell Baker got on the phone with reporters to spread the word about its “Apply, Buy and Try” slogan, an effort to encourage people not to wait until the last minute to try to pick up those new DTV signals.

Asked why there seemed to be no warning for consumers that even if they do everything right, they could lose a signal due to the change in contour, the NTIA's Baker deferred to the FCC on antenna and reception issues, but said that she would work with the commission and broadcasters “to help the education program address these issues.”

Barry Goodstadt of market research firm Centris says the education message should have been more extensive from the beginning. “They should have let people know that buying a converter box was not the full story. The full story was that you had to make sure that your antenna worked adequately.”

Antenna Issues

The Wilmington test revealed what some say broadcasters and the government should have already been making clearer to viewers, that there is a twofold issue with antenna reception in digital: viewers on the edges of markets who technically shouldn't have been getting a signal and now won't; and folks who did legitimately get a signal but aren't getting one anymore because the stations' coverage areas are different in digital than they were in analog. Goodstadt would add a third point: viewers who will need a rooftop antenna to get all these stations, even within the coverage area.

One of the nightmares being painted by, among others, the FCC's Adelstein is of senior citizens climbing onto their roofs to put up an antenna. Adelstein made that point to a New York crowd at a B&C-sponsored event a little over a week ago, but he was echoing a point made by other Democrats in the wake of Wilmington. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), whose state's analog-only viewership is about 20% compared with Wilmington's 7%, asked Martin at a Hill oversight hearing whether he had ever been on a roof in Minnesota during the winter trying to upgrade an antenna. Martin said no.