The Digital Television transition, as we’ve written before, is becoming a political hot potato, with everyone seemingly preparing to point the finger at others if the transition does not run smoothly. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Republicans and Democrats alike taking their shots at broadcasters and the FCC – looking for likely sources of blame if there are a significant number of viewers who have a television signal that is missing in action on February 18, 2009, the day after the end of the transition. Many are blaming television broadcasters for not pushing the transition more in Public Service Announcements and other announcements on their airwaves. Some suggest a set of mandatory public service obligations to inform the public (see details here).  But would such a push at this time do any good when the availability of converter boxes is limited, and the price of digital-only television sets still high?

In recent actions, Commissioner Copps wrote an op-ed piece in USA Today last week sounding an old theme – more public interest obligations for digital television (see our post on the pending proposals, here) – and a newer one, that broadcasters should now be running public service announcements that inform the public of the steps that they need to take to be ready for the transition (either subscribing to cable or satellite or getting a digital television or converter box). A similar point about the publicity for the transition – perhaps even mandatory PSAs – was made in a recent letter from two Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Joe Barton and Fred Upton, to the FCC. While there is no question that broadcasters need to promote the digital transition as the public is woefully uninformed of what is coming, does promotion do any good if the hardware is not available?

A personal shopping trip for a new TV for my son who just left for college was instructive to me. Looking to buy an inexpensive television likely to get abused in a freshman dorm room, I went to the local big box store in his college town. There were digital TVs in abundance – if you wanted to pay $500 or more. But there was not a converter box in sight and, surprisingly, only one non-digital set marked with the required consumer warning about being obsolete after the end of the transition. After looking at the choices, I decided not to buy now, instead opting to furnish his room with an old analog set from home that still worked just fine. That experience caused me to wonder what would happen if TV stations were running ads warning consumers about the transition now, before the converter boxes have been rolled out in great numbers. What would a consumer do if they hear dire warnings of the end of their television service, but visit the electronics store only to find themselves faced with the choice of buying a $500 television set or a non-existent converter box. My sense is that there would be a host of unhappy consumers complaining to the FCC, Congress and anyone else who would listen.

So perhaps a more measured approach to publicizing the transition is in order. The NAB has formed a department to publicize the transition, and gave details of the actions that it will be taking in a recent FCC filing addressing the proposal for mandatory public service announcements.  It seems like it is in the industry’s own interest to make sure that its listeners are not disenfranchised.  The Commission should allow these efforts to get underway before adding new FCC regulation.  A calm, reasoned approach may well better serve the broadcaster, the consumer and the regulator who will be the one that receives complaints if consumers are panicked too early.

[Update – October 3, 2007] Yesterday, Senator Kohl, Chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Aging, introduced a bill in Congress that would increase funding for outreach to the aging and other groups likely to be hurt by the DTV transition.  According to the press release, the bill would also mandate PSAs on the transition, and set specific reporting requirements to Congress about the progress of the transition.  It would also give a priority on the DTV coupon program, about which we wrote here, to those relying on over-the-air television as their primary source of TV.