With the Digital Television conversion date only eight and a half months away, the end game is beginning.  The FCC has announced that Wilmington, North Carolina will be a test market for the digital conversion, going all-digital on September 8 (or almost all digital, as the local NPR affiliate is not planning to turn off its analog signal, and one LPTV station will continue to operate in analog).  This will provide the FCC with an opportunity to determine what will really happen when the digital transition occurs in February of next year.  What will the FCC learn from this early test?  In the statement of Commissioner Copps at a recent town hall meeting held in Wilmington to address the digital conversion, some of the issues to be watched were set out.

Essentially, the Commissioner identified four different broad categories of issues that would be considered.  They are:

  • Technical issues – will the DTV signals provide adequate service to their communities?  Will the converter boxes be able to receive the signals with "rabbit ear" antennas, or will there be reception problems
  • Will consumers have received the word about the transition, or are there certain groups that will be particularly hard-hit by the transition, missing out on vital information about that transition?
  • How will various partnerships work?  The Commissioner identifies partnerships between various industry, government and community groups to distribute news about the transition, but there are also partnerships between stations and multi-channel video providers (cable and direct broadcast satellite) that need to be worked out
  • The unknown – what other issues that are not anticipated will arise?

As set forth below, many of these issues have been receiving extensive press coverage in recent weeks.

Last week, a Washington Post article addressed some of the practical problems with the digital conversion, identifying many of the problems that others have identified before, such as the fact that the digital signals are subject to breaking up when received on rabbit ears when there are people walking around a room, or airplanes or trucks passing near the house.  A similar article ran last month in the New York Times.  I have personally experienced the issue, having bought a digital converter box last weekend to hook up to an analog TV set.  Even though, from the second story of my house I can see some of the TV towers when there are no leaves on the trees, a TV on the first floor, which picked up digital signals clearly when there was no movement, would break up into pixels when there were people moving in the room.  A second floor TV with a better antenna had fewer issues.  But these problems will no doubt be faced by consumers as the transition occurs, and stations need to be prepared to address them with their viewers.  The Wilmington test will provide ideas on how bad the problems will be, and how great a consumer outcry will occur.

Last week, the New York Times also reported on a recent study that addressed the number of homes that were unprepared for the transition.  The report stated that 25 million homes have sets that won’t work after the digital transition, and 10 million are completely unprepared for that transition.  While the Times report seemed to regard these figures as ominous, as television stations are only now beginning to really alert consumers about the transition, these figures may not be of as much concern as the article seems to imply.

Efforts are now being made by organizations across the country to educate the public about the transition.  Not only have the FCC rules requiring consumer education efforts by broadcasters, cable companies, and consumer electronics stores, about which we wrote here, been adopted, but voluntary efforts are underway around the country.  The NAB, the FCC, the consumer electronics companies, all sorts of community organizations and broadcasters themselves are conducting educational efforts all around the nation.  The FCC itself is conducting a seminar on converter box issues on June 19, and hosting another on May 28 sponsored by the NAB and DC’s Congressional representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton.  Similar seminars are being conducted across the country.

Partnerships between broadcasters and multichannel video providers, to ensure that all are ready to "flip the switch" at the same time are also necessary.  And, as we wrote here, there is also a need for broadcasters to coordinate with each other to make sure that conversions which are contingent on each other are coordinated.  Industry organizations are working with stations to ensure that they work out these issues.

So, while there is much to do before the transition, the Wilmington experiment should help to clarify many of the issues that are to be resolved.  It will be interesting to see what is learned in Wilmington.  Whether it will be interesting to be in Wilmington when the conversion occurs remains to be seen.