Early DTV Switch: Hardly a Hitch

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The early transition to digital broadcasting for 421 TV stations on Feb. 17 occurred with no major hitches.

True, there was a man who shot his TV set when he lost his signal and couldn’t make the digital converter box work. And, yes, there was a steady stream of calls to the Federal Communications Commission/industry call center, whose industry side was spearheaded by cable companies.

At press time, the FCC said the center had received about 70,000 calls between Feb. 17 and Feb. 19.

But there appeared to be no major fallout from the discontinuation of analog by about one-quarter of the stations on the original transition hard date that morphed into an early move after Congress moved the date to June 12. They joined 220 broadcasters that had already made the transition.

Legislators were on President’s Day break, but there was no indication that their switchboards had received the flood of angry phone calls some had anticipated. The FCC was preparing Friday to release an order on the next step in administering the date-move bill, including whether to let stations start pulling the plug March 14 in dribs and drabs, or another date certain — or sort of certain — to help call centers and outreach programs prepare for the next wave. (March 14 is the soonest that stations who didn’t go Feb. 17 can start pulling the plug, so long as they have informed viewers and the FCC).

But so, far, so good.

Acting FCC chairman Michael Copps said as much last week in a shout-out to the industry, thanking “broadcast, cable and other companies, the many consumer organizations, and an absolutely inspired group of civil servants who all stepped up to the plate.”

But Copps said they weren’t out of the woods yet pointing out that two-thirds of the stations hadn’t yet made the switch and saying the industry would need to “redouble their efforts.”

While Copps has said before that there could be confusion and dislocation, he suggested that moving the date had helped prevent some of that. “Thanks to the movement of the deadline, we did not have anything like the extent of disruption we would have experienced had every station in the country gone completely digital on Tuesday,” he said.

He likened the partial transition — 421 stations pulled the plug Feb. 17, joining 220 that had already done so in the days leading up to that date — to a larger test, the first one conducted by the FCC in Wilmington, N.C., last September. He said moving the date “gave the FCC, broadcasters and our other partners in industry and the communities a chance to test, on a broader scale, the mechanisms we have in place to help consumers. And we could test those resources without overwhelming them.”

Talking about the DTV switch Friday for C-SPAN’s The Communicators, FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein praised cable for its role in the call centers. “The cable industry stepped up and provided some additional capacity that helped to take the burden of calls,” he said.

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration said last week that if it ran into a backlog of DTV-to-analog converter-box coupon requests, it would put requests from analog-only homes ahead of those from cable or satellite subscribers.