DTV transition: Full steam ahead


Nobody at the FCC forum on the digital television transition thinks it’s going to go off without a hitch. But nearly everybody on panels representing regulators, stakeholders and watchdogs seems to think things are moving along very nicely. The biggest outstanding issue revolved around the FCC’s consumer call-in center, with NTIA poised to play the roll of cavalry reinforcement. Many praised the leadership of Michael Copps since he became Acting FCC Chairman this past winter. Jonathan Adelstein said, “We were in trouble, and the Copps came just in time.”

Many, including Copps, noted that delaying the deadline was a very good thing indeed, and many lessons were learned that will payoff 6/12/09. It was also a good thing to have a rolling transition, with many stations already all-digital, rather than a coast-to-coast flashcut to digital.

Commissioner Robert McDowell bored in on the call center topic, and found from FCC CIO Andrew Martin that the operation may run a little short during the days before and after 6/12/09. Martin said $10M should plug the gap, and NTIA should have plenty of cash which it would be authorized to send to the FCC for just that purpose. However, the only person who can answer the question as to whether or not the funds will be there, the Secretary of Commerce, was not present. Copps expressed confidence the FCC would get the cash.

Most government employees, stakeholders and watchdogs are putting their full focus on consumer education as the final days before the transition wind down.

Representatives from the manufacturing and retail sector said the problem is more likely to be too many converter boxes in stock, not too few, although there is always the possibility of local shortages. Antenna stocks are also said to be robust.

35 television stations will be going dark 6/12/09 rather than moving on into digital; 18 are in financial distress, including 17 from on company. The FCC did not identity the company, but it sounds like bankrupt Equity Media Holdings to us, which recently auctioned off many properties and still is shopping others. Most of the others are facing a technical challenge of one kind or another.

Only 100 stations have committed to provide nightlight service, reaching 63 markets. But at least 42 of the 49 markets identified as most challenged will have one or more night lights in operation. FCC and NAB officials are trying to encourage more participation.

Everybody seems resigned to the fact that some over-air customers are simply going to lose access to a given station due to changes in coverage area. It is believed that this will affect mostly those on the fringes of DMAs, but is also likely to generate the most rancorous and least resolvable consumer complaints.

Consumer Union’s Joel Kelsey claimed that some cable companies were using the transition to upsell people, when they should be clearly pointing out the most economical solutions along with pricier options. NCTA’s Kyle McSlarrow said it’s true that some may be employing such marketing practices, but said it wasn’t the rule, and pointed out that NCTA spent $250M promoting converter boxes as an alternative to signing up for cable. He said he’d be happy to work with CU and look into specific instances.

There may be a bit of a delayed reaction as procrastinating consumers come to grips with the results of their inattention. That’s because many will be kicking off a vacation on 6/12/09, which happens to be a Friday, or even just a weekend getaway, and may not even realize they have a problem for an extended period of time.
Following are summaries of testimony.

MSTV’s David Donovan took a swipe at unlicensed devices, saying this was exactly the wrong time to start throwing this kind a a wildcard into the DTV transition, which will be challenging enough without any distractions.

Panel 1: FCC and NTIA Reports on the Status of the DTV Transition and Prospects for June 12, 2009:

Eloise Gore, Associate Bureau Chief, Media Bureau, Federal Communications Commission: 35 stations expected to go dark after 6/12, many owned by one bankrupt company, and some affiliated with major networks. 18 have economic problems, 17 have technical difficulties which can be resolved. Most will be available on subchannels of other stations. 100 night light stations will keep analog up for up to 30 days after 6/12. 63 markets, and 42 of targeted 49 hot spot markets, will have at least one night light station. Still looking for additional volunteer stations.

Cathy Seidel, Chief, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Federal Communications Commission: Working on consumer awareness. Emphasizing converter box scanning, attention to antenna. Showing up at church suppers, bingo nights, carnivals and amusement parks, anywhere they may find a crowd and catch some consumers in need of info. Will continue working coast to coast to assist left behinds.

Andrew Martin, Chief Information Officer, Federal Communications Commission: Call centers have used core pool of FCC based respondents. Workforce will be upped to 4K, trained to various levels. Under questioning from McDowell, would want more funding, maybe $10M, to increase staffing at call centers during hot days before and after transition. Resources need to come from Department of Congress. McGuire-Rivera says it has money that can go to FCC, but it’s been hanging on to it until coupon program is funded. Money has been requested. SecComm must make decision.

Julius Knapp, Chief, Office of Engineering and Technology, Federal Communications Commission: Consumers making good use of DTV mapping tool. Advising consumers and retailers to work together to address antenna questions. Emphasizes rescanning converter boxes.

Dr. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, Associate Administrator, Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications, National Telecommunications and Information Administration: 58M coupons distributed, about 6.5M active out there right now. Pushing coupon donations at this point. Has been spending ad money mostly in ethnic demos. McGuire-Rivera says it has money that can go to FCC, but it’s been hanging on to it until coupon program is funded. Money has been requested. SecComm must make decision.

Panel 2:  Industry and Consumer Group Reports on the Status of the DTV Transition and Prospects for June 12, 2009:

Jane Mago, Senior Vice President & General Counsel, National Association of Broadcasters: Educational effort has produced nearly 100% consumer awareness. 5/21 mini transition was useful learning experience. News, PSAs will continue.

Larry Sidman, President and CEO, Association of Public Television Stations: Reinvigorated oversight from FCC, Obama and Congress has made a big difference. Created a phased DTV conversion rather than a sudden nationwide flashcut. On-air education is working. Some viewers on the fringes are simply going to lose some channels they used to be able to get.

David Donovan, President, MSTV: Coordinating with cable and satellite on tech issues. Thank both for their cooperation.

Kyle McSlarrow, President and CEO, National Cable & Telecommunications Association: Shifted emphasis almost entirely to consumer education at this point.

Joel Kelsey, Policy Analyst, Consumers Union: Worked hard for delay of original date. Copps, with only three months to pick up pieces of disorganized transition, has done a great job. Excellent job improving training of phone respondents. Walk-in centers have been great. Better signal coverage information has been great. 85% of CU’s off-air viewers (12% of its total readers) are ready to go. Need for and trouble with antennae is still a significant challenge. Says cable industry is still using transition to upsell consumers, and not coming forth readily with cheapest options. Some retailers have pledged to keep at least one $40 converter box on their shelves throughout the transition.

Christopher A. McLean, Executive Director, Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition: Too soon for a victory lap, but a lot of hard work has gone into this. Thanks Copps for strong leadership. Converter box supply looks good, general state of readiness, and retailers concern about supply are more that they have too many, not that there aren’t enough.

Shawn DuBravac, Economist, Consumer Electronics Association: Looks like manufacturers and retailers will be able to meet demand for converter boxes and antennae. All signs point to a successful transition, with consumers generally taking necessary steps. Transition will be a historically significant and successful public/private partnership.

Erica Swanson, Deputy Director for Field Operations & Director, LCCREF DTV Assistance Campaign Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund: Glad that left behinds appear to be few, but is concerned they’ll be in vulnerable demos and will be working hard to bring everybody up to speed. Offering local, hands-on, culturally-appropriate help. Expects efforts will need to be strengthened and extended after 6/12/09. Could run into an extended backdoor problem as financial woes cause more people to cut off cable or satellite subscriptions.