This Is Only a Test - Broadcasting & Cable

This Is Only a Test

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More than a million DTV-to-analog converters were requested in the first two days of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) converter-box subsidy program last week. We don't know whether that means the converter-box education message has gotten out to key target populations like the elderly and minorities, or whether, as we suspect, it is the techno-friendly early adopters who want to make sure they get theirs before the coupons run out.

Either way, the switch to digital is officially on in earnest, at least if interest in the coupons is any gauge.

And not a minute too soon. There is just over a year until all of the full-power DTV stations have to pull the plug on their analog signals, and the FCC last week, in emphasizing the point, said any full-power station broadcasting in analog after the stroke of midnight on Feb. 17, 2009, will be treated as an unlicensed operator and dealt with accordingly. That message came in the FCC's release of its long-awaited rules of the road for the DTV transition.

Around the FCC, the idea has been floated that maybe the commission should authorize a kind of test kitchen for the analog-to-digital switch, just to see what kind of problems it had not anticipated. That would mean picking a small market or community, outfitting anyone who needs them with converter boxes, going all-digital and seeing what does or does not hit the fan.

That's probably unfeasible, however, and it also avoids answering a central question: Without government help, will publicity about the switchover be understood and heeded by the elderly, poor and minorities? And for stations, what other kinds of technical problems will there be?

Testing is a smart idea. We'd suggest the FCC, which now has some practice with town meetings, organize some sessions at community centers and target the audience that some fear won't ever get the word or understand the analog-to-digital concept. It is an inelegant solution, but it could work.

And, we think, PBS could help. Public television already has a big commitment to the transition because it serves the same audience the FCC and others fear will miss out on transition. But as a public service, PBS could broadcast meetings with poor, elderly or Hispanic viewers, and thereby serve a larger audience.

There are myriad technical issues to consider, which is why a test market sounds prudent. The FCC should explore the possibilities. If nothing else, the exercise of imagining what may happen with real, live consumers could shape the coordinated transition that Capitol Hill and commission Democrats fear is tottering now.

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