NAB 2008: NBCU: Don’t Plan on Voucher Extensions for Converter Boxes

Top Lobbyist: 90 Days Is One of Several DTV Dates that Isn’t Moving

Las Vegas -- Consumers who receive a $40 coupon from the government to subsidize the purchase of a digital-to-analog converter box should act fast, said NBC Universal vice president Bob Okun, who heads the network’s lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.

That’s because Okun doesn’t expect the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the digital-TV converter-box program, to extend the 90-day expiration dates the coupons come with, after which they are no longer valid.

The 90-day window was initially set up to avoid fraud and abuse in the converter-box program. But since converter boxes have been relatively scarce on store shelves to date -- and only nine out of the current 73 models feature the analog-pass-through capability that would facilitate easy viewing of low-power stations -- consumer groups, electronics manufacturers and retailers have all argued for extending the 90-day deadline to give consumers enough opportunity to find and purchase a box that will let them continue to watch TV on an analog set after the Feb. 17, 2009, analog shut-off.

Acting NTIA head Meredith Attwell Baker told Congress the NTIA would talk with subcontractor IBM about what it would take, logistically, for IBM to do so, and some lobbyists B&C spoke with at the 2008 NAB Show here suggested that an extension was inevitable.

NBCU wasn’t as optimistic. “We’re all under the assumption that it’s not going to be extended,” Okun said. “If it is, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Okun -- who was speaking at a press briefing here where NBCU executives outlined the networks’ efforts to ensure a smooth DTV transition for its stations and affiliates -- also said the Feb. 17, 2009, hard date itself isn’t budging. That is consistent with the views expressed by other broadcasters, cable operators, vendors and retailers here at NAB in various panel discussions.

Okun noted that the “political groundwork” has been laid over the past two years by current elected officials to deflect responsibility if the Feb. 17, 2009, turn-off of analog signals turns out to be a disaster.

“If it does, the message will be, ‘Don’t blame us,’” he quipped.

NBCU held its first breakfast meeting with chief engineers from affiliates here in seven years where chief technology officer Darren Feher and other top executives discussed the final hurdles of the digital transition, as well as the opportunities afforded by new technologies such as interactive television, mobile DTV and broadband video. The network formed its own internal “DTV SWAT” team to deal with issues like aspect ratio in downconverted signals and loudness problems with digital audio.

“Next year is kind of our Y2K,” said John Eck, president of the NBC TV Network and Media Works.

Eck and other NBC executives don’t buy into claims by research firm Centris that more than 9 million homes might lose TV reception come February 2009 due to serious gaps in the coverage of DTV signals. But Eck said NBC speculated internally that it might lose 3%-6% of its over-the-air viewers come Feb. 18, 2009, mainly due to consumers failing to buy converter boxes, not reception problems.

Eck added that NBC considered making a marketing push next fall and winter with cable operators and retailers to make sure that those viewers maintain their NBC service, either by signing up for cable or buying converter boxes. He said NBC is in a unique position to do so since it will broadcast the next Super Bowl, the last major TV event before the Feb. 17 date.

“The last 100 days going into this, and the first 60 days afterward, should be fascinating,” he added. “It will be really interesting to watch.”

For complete coverage of the 2008 NAB Show, click here.