February 17, 2009 – the end of analog television.  When broadcast television stations cease their analog operations, making millions of television sets obsolete, will consumers be ready?  And how will Congress deal with the backlash if consumers are taken by surprise and their television reception disappears?  This week, these questions were being asked in Washington and elsewhere.

 At the NAB Broadcast Leadership meetings in Washington held this week, Congressman John Dingell expressed his concerns that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is late in releasing guidelines for the government program that they are administering to provide subsidies to the public so that they can buy converter boxes to allow analog television sets to receive digital signals.  An article in Multichannel News gives further details on the Congressman’s comments, and provides a history of the converter box program.  The article states that the $1.5 billion allocated to the program is half what is necessary to convert the 73 million analog sets that are estimated to exist.  However, it makes the point that as digital sets are sold, the need for the converter boxes may decrease, and assumption that "the country will need to deal with a massive analog-equipment-legacy problem could turn out to be incorrect."

While that may be the case, an article in the February 28 Portals column in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required to read the article) makes one wonder how ready the consumer really will be for the transition deadline.  That article cites a study by the Leichtman Research Group which found that half of the 24 million homes with HDTV sets don’t watch HDTV because they haven’t subscribed to the necessary service from a multichannel video provider, or don’t know that they can pick up HDTV signals over the air.  About half the the viewers who are not watching HDTV don’t even know it – thinking that because they bought the set, they should automatically have HDTV pictures.  This same kind of confusion no doubt exists with respect to the DTV transition.   

On the Leichtman website, in their most recent quarterly report, they state that only one-third of the American public is even aware of the DTV transition and the 2009 deadline.  My own conversations with friends and relatives who have no connection with the broadcast business confirms these statistics, as only the most technologically astute realize that their TVs may be obsolete in two years.  And as many people have bought new TV sets in recent years, they will no doubt be very disappointed once they discover that their purchases no longer work.  

At the Leadership Conference, a panel of Congressional staffers of both political parties unanimously stated that they did not see any delay to the transition end date.  But those staffers also recognized that it will be their employers who will feel the wrath of the public if TV sets don’t work.  Those currently making decisions about the transition, at the FCC and at NTIA, most likely will not be around at the deadline – after the Presidential election.  So all of the panelists hoped that the consumer education process underway at the NAB and in the government will quickly bear fruit.  Otherwise, the first great crisis of the new President’s term may well be over TV sets that don’t work.  Perhaps that doesn’t have the same geo-political significance of some of the international crises that faced past Presidents, but it may well be more significant to the average American.