It’s been a week since Wilmington, North Carolina became the first television market in the country to have virtually all of its television stations convert to digital – ceasing their analog operations. The FCC, NAB and local stations all concentrated great resources in Wilmington in order to ensure that the transition was smooth and, while most observers believe that disruption was minimal, there are some who remain concerned about the results of the Wilmington experiment, and whether it can be replicated in other television markets. While the FCC ramps up its efforts to promote the digital television transition around the country, one Commissioner has suggested several other steps that should be taken (including leaving an analog lifeline for those people who don’t get the message), and Congress is set to weigh in on the issues over the next two weeks. All in all, the push is on for the February 17, 2009 transition to digital.
One of the most thought provoking commentaries on the transition comes from Harry Jessell, editor of TV Newsday. In a commentary published last Friday, Jessell computes that the complaints in Wilmington amounted to about 5% of the television households in that market. If that pattern was to be repeated in all markets around the country, Jessell computes that there would be about 1.7 million homes that will miss the transition and be without TV service on February 18. Jessell further figures that this is a best case number, as all of the publicity showered on Wilmington will not be available in the remainder of the country, and there will likely be more technical problems in other markets with more irregular terrain than Wilmington (which is mostly flat coastal plain) and where TV towers are in different locations. Jessell suggests several steps – including staggered cut-off dates to avoid overloading national DTV hotlines, more education on antenna issues (one of the major issues in Wilmington), and more "soft-tests" (stations ceasing analog operations for limited periods to see if their viewers are ready for the transition). It is a commentary worth reading.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps today released a letter to Chairman Martin suggesting his own set of actions. These include some that the FCC can itself do (e.g. setting up task forces to target outreach to "at-risk communities" and improving the FCC’s call center to deal with DTV questions), many of the proposals will need significant industry assistance. This includes the proposal to push for the introduction of battery powered digital televisions (important in emergencies like those highlighted by this year’s hurricanes), conducting more field testing, and improving education about how to use digital-to-analog converter boxes and antennas to pick up digital signals (which in many cases need to be far more sensitive and accurate given the all or nothing nature of the digital signal – it doesn’t deteriorate toward snow when the antenna is not properly placed, instead it disappears. Also, the nature of the digital signal requires "buffering," meaning that an antenna must be left in one place for 5 to 10 seconds to see if it has acquired a signal, making antenna placement more difficult without immediate feedback as to whether it is in the right place). Commissioner Copps also favors an idea that has been echoed by many other observers – the need to leave at least one station operating in analog after the end of the transition with an explanation of where the analog signals went for those people who don’t otherwise get the message.
In the next two weeks, both the House and the Senate will be holding oversight hearings to determine if the FCC is properly handling the end-game of the DTV transition. At the same time, the FCC has announced that it will be sending its employees around the country to conduct DTV transition seminars and meetings. We’ve personally seen FCC staffers, required to travel for reasons totally unrelated to the transition, who have been pressed into service to spread the DTV message when they are otherwise visiting a distant city . The FCC is doing its best to spread the word.
Even with these efforts, are there bound to be some people who miss the message? Of course – there always seem to be some people who simply are not paying attention. But doomsayers must also remember that, as the final transition date approaches, the media will all focus on that deadline. One would think that, with the concentrated publicity that the deadline will receive from local and national media, the word will get out. Or at least we can hope….