Hill Keeps DTV on Front Burner

Oversight hearing and Wilmington test prompt debate

One thing about the debate over the progress of the DTV transition is becoming abundantly clear: If it doesn't go well, blame will be passed around a whole lot swifter than converter box coupons.

The House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, which is hoping to wrap up its business this week, is trying to press the point that primary stakeholders in the transition must do everything possible to prevent viewer—and voter—backlash.

Simply calling a DTV oversight hearing prompted a flurry of activity, including the release of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finding fault with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a letter from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to electronics retailers asking where all those vaunted $40 DTV converter boxes are, and the decision finally to allow nursing-home residents and post-office-box owners to get converter box subsidies.

Giving another push last week was Martin, who said that about 15% of TV stations will suffer significant viewership losses when they switch to digital and their coverage areas change. That number reflected viewership losses suffered by WECT, the NBC affiliate in Wilmington, N.C., whose coverage area in digital is significantly reduced.

Martin also told Congress that FCC engineers were working on identifying the markets where there would be significant viewer losses and fix them, perhaps by allowing translators or boosters to get the DTV signal to those viewers.

According to a spokesman for Martin, the chairman clarified after the hearing that he was referring to viewers within an old analog coverage area, and not those outside the market who might have been getting a signal to which they technically weren't entitled. He was also only talking about those viewers in a station's former analog footprint that could not get a similar station from an adjacent market.

In the wake of the Wilmington test, legislators and industry witnesses agreed that the DTV education campaign must move from general awareness to a more nuts-and-bolts approach, particularly encouraging viewers to set up and test their converter boxes now. As NTIA acting chief Meredith Atwell Baker put it, “Apply, buy and try.” The FCC released new PSAs helping walk viewers through those issues.

Before the House leaves for the year by the end of next week (or so it hopes), Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) want to secure a plan in writing from the NTIA on how the agency will deal with an expected boost in DTV converter box coupon requests in the waning days of the transition. A new GAO report claims that the NTIA needs such a plan and doesn't have one.

The NTIA did get props from the Hill when it announced a change on converter box eligibility rules, allowing nursing-home residents and people who use P.O. boxes to apply for coupons. With rural and elderly viewers being two of the key target populations in the DTV switch, there was no small irony in the fact that since NTIA had defined households per the Census Bureau, nursing homes and P.O. boxes did not qualify. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced last week they would be included when the new rules go into effect in about four weeks.

But it was not just the government that wanted to stake out its DTV ground in what is likely the last House DTV oversight hearing until January, only weeks before the Feb. 17 transition date. National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow used the hearing to warn of the “gathering storm” of retransmission consent negotiations. In part, he was pitching a cable proposal for a several-months-long retrans quiet period surrounding the DTV transition, one that would preclude broadcasters from pulling their signals during the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl.

Parrying that thrust was David Rehr, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, who spoke up for a much shorter quiet period—four weeks—that would not preclude pulling those games.

The FCC is currently considering the dueling requests, with Martin proposing a slightly longer period than the NAB—protecting the Super Bowl—but closer to Rehr and company's plan than to cable's.

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