News

Why Not Interrupt the Super Bowl

9/26/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

When Wilmington, N.C., transitioned to digital TV on Sept. 8, I brought a team of Elon University students versed in the issues to handle telephone calls to commercial television stations and Time Warner Cable’s call center. Even though the analog screen directed viewers to call the Federal Communications Commission’s 800 number, my gut instinct was that some residents would still call the people they knew — local television providers.

In the 10 hours immediately following the market’s switch, we handled 172 phone calls. Based on those conversations, we make the following recommendations to DTV stakeholders:

Blink the analog signal more often and during viewers’ favorite programs: Prior to the switch on Monday, Wilmington broadcasters conducted what I call a series of blinking tests — interrupting analog signals with a slate that basically said, “If you are looking at this, you aren’t ready for DTV.”

Such blinking gives viewers a sense of urgency that they need to get ready. During testimony last week on Capitol Hill one representative remarked, “Whatever you do, don’t interrupt the Super Bowl.” As an academic who has studied consumer adoption of digital television for the last decade, let me suggest that we do in fact interrupt the Super Bowl at halftime for five minutes. In those five minutes, broadcasters will sound the alarm for Americans and folks around their TVs will be grateful that you didn’t interrupt the whole game, which will be the case on Feb. 17.

Early blinking tests work. In Wilmington, they discovered a problem with a small cable operator that had not completed its integration of the new digital signals into the headend. Cable operators also reportedly picked up 500 cable subscribers in the weeks prior to the switch, most of whom were first-time cable subscribers.

Cable’s tried-and-true primary asset of retransmitting steadfast broadcast signals was revisited for perhaps the final few adopters — the laggards.

Five hundred cable subscribers in Wilmington represent 4% of over-the-air households. An opportunity exists for cable and satellite companies to provide a meaningful service at a moment when clearly some households would prefer not to create an over-the-air digital viewing environment. No shame in that.

A handful of cable customers also called for a new drop immediately following the switch — rather than redeem a converter-box coupon — when they realized that sets not connected to cable no longer picked up television signals.

You won’t have a problem if you subscribe to satellite and local channels on satellite: Customers with satellite television had heard the message, “You won’t have a problem with the digital transition if you subscribe to satellite.” Several frustrated satellite customers called the television stations, thinking their satellite box would somehow convert over-the-air analog signals, or that local channels would now be available at no charge via satellite. The message that one must subscribe to local channels via satellite or get a converter box needs to be branded more effectively.

Use analog television more effectively during the actual transition: When the switch happened at noon, analog television stations carried a universal slate instructing viewers to call the FCC’s toll-free number. Even with these directions, 172 Wilmington residents decided to call their local broadcasters, a phone number they probably had to look up. A majority of callers were elderly residents; the average age was 60 and frequently someone called on their behalf.

People have a relationship with local television, especially the older, often home-bound viewer. Stations could program a video loop with local talent demonstrating what was necessary to set up and acquire a digital signal. Hispanic viewers who haven’t converted should be greeted by talent they recognize and trust, speaking in Spanish. Perhaps the government should let this video loop run on the analog signals until the close of February, giving everyone two weeks to make the switch.

Citizens trusted their government and got ready: Perhaps the most important lesson was that the people of Wilmington trusted their government and prepared in good faith, believing the promise and potential of the spectrum to be made available will be good for our country. I strongly encourage our elected and appointed government officials, as well as our nation’s broadcasters, to act with expedited efficiency on the people’s faith in our government’s decision and interrupt the Super Bowl.

September