News

Now Comes the Hard Part

9/12/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

You could practically hear the champagne corks popping at the FCC over the test results from Wilmington, N.C., which became the first television market in the United States to switch to digital-only broadcasting last week.

“The collective efforts of the [FCC], the community and industry to inform viewers of the early transition in this local market were effective,” declared FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

The agency sent a small army of staffers there to help prepare the community, which was blitzed with ads and announcements warning of the permanent switch to digital signals, which most Americans will experience in February. “I saw them everywhere,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said of the FCC. “You folks were at blueberry festivals and fireworks shows and hog-callings and all kinds of stuff.”

The vast majority of the city's 400,000 residents (180,000 TV households) yawned through the experience. “As near as I can tell, it has been something of a nonevent,” Wilmington city council member Laura Padgett told Multichannel News reporter Ted Hearn.

Bravo. Now comes the hard part. The FCC noted that 48 hours after the region's five commercial TV stations turned off their analog signals, that more than 1,200 Wilmington residents called a special government helpline with technical questions.

You can bet your sweet F-connector those figures will be instantly extrapolated to the national population come February 17, 2009. An estimated 11 million to 19 million broadcast-TV only homes in the U.S. households may not be able to receive the digital broadcasts.

Even after the $1 billion educational campaign put on by the broadcasters, which cranks up soon, the cable industry's $200 million education effort and the FCC's coupon program, it won't be enough. Even after the FCC gives special attention to the needy markets, there will still be tens of thousands, if not millions, of confused people.

Indeed, most Americans are increasingly aware of the date, but there's enormous room for confusion. The most vulnerable are the elderly, minorities, people with disabilities and people who can't speak English.

The House and Senate will hold hearings in coming weeks on this.

Politicians would be wise to keep close watch. Since this is a government program , they'll likely to take the first calls from angry constituents who can't watch American Idol.

Some of these difficulties can be avoided. Stations should start making the switch earlier than February. Or at least soft-testing, which involves interrupting programming, especially in primetime, with public service announcements. That's one tip Dan Ullner, the chief engineer for Wilmington's NBC and Fox affiliates, told Hearn.

Said Ulner, “I think broadcasters have been too hesitant to interfere with their ratings and viewers on their analog channels. As we get closer to the shut off date, it's going to be more crucial that they do.” Amen.

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