LIN TV Blackout Confusion Leads To ‘Run’ On DTV Coupons

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The American Cable Association Thursday charged that LIN TV’s retransmission dispute with Time Warner Cable has lead to subscriber confusion and an unnecessary “run” on digital-converter coupons – a federal program that’s already under strain -- in some markets.

As a result, the lobbying group for independent cable operators urged federal regulators to consider immediately imposing a so-called “quiet period” during which broadcasters couldn’t pull their signals during retransmission-consent disputes.

Previously, the ACA has said that quiet period should be effective before Dec. 31 and extend through May 31 “so consumers are not confused by lost broadcast signals during this critical transition period.” 

The National Association of Broadcasters has said the quiet period should start Feb 4.

In a press release Thursday, the ACA said that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – the government agency responsible for distributing DTV convert coupons and certifying set-top boxes in preparation for the Feb. 17 transition from analog to digital television signals -- has reported an increase in coupon requests in some markets affected by the retransmission consent dispute between LIN TV and Time Warner Cable. 

Last Friday, LIN TV pulled signals for 15 of its stations in 11 markets, affecting 1.5 million Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks subscribers. The NTIA has seen increased requests for coupons of three of those cities, namely Austin, Texas, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Springfield, Ill., according to the ACA.

News that the LIN station blackout “may be causing a run on DTV coupons is troubling," ACA president and CEO Matt Polka said in a statement. “But it is even more disconcerting to think that many of these requests are coming from customers who do not need converters and who otherwise would not have requested these coupons."

“LIN TV’s decision to pull its signals is not only causing confusion, but it’s also eating up limited resources for the DTV coupon program,” he said. “A program, which, according to FCC chairman Kevin Martin, now runs the risk of running out of money. These disruptions of service around the time of the DTV transition might be needlessly costing tax payers money and could be eliminating a limited supply of converter boxes from store shelves that are intended for consumers who really need them.”

The National Association of Broadcasters issued its own statement Thursday: “ACA's rhetoric is completely nonsensical. Only in cable fantasy land does a campaign that successfully equips consumers with DTV converter boxes translate into confusion and failure. If ACA truly cares about consumers, it might want to explore claims by Consumer Reports magazine that its members are deceptively using the DTV transition as an opportunity to upsell customers into higher-priced digital tiers.” 

As recently as Wednesday, Martin raised the possibility that the DTV-to-analog converter box coupon subsidy program could be running out of money, the ACA said. In an Oct. 7 letter to House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Martin voiced his concern that the NTIA may have underestimated the number of coupons it needed.

“We urge the chairman to immediately issue the retransmission consent quiet period rulemaking that will guard against these threats to a successful transition,” continued Polka. 

“In light of the NTIA’s comments, the issue should no longer be whether the quiet period should begin Feb. 4, Jan. 15, or Dec. 15, but whether it should be implemented immediately, and certainly no later than Dec. 15, to reduce further confusion and lessen the strain on the NTIA program,” Polka said. “Every day we are not moving forward to establish a quiet period, we’re increasing the chance of problems as we approach the transition. Disruptions in service, regardless of the cause, appear to cause a run on the governments’ coupon program, which according to some is already over strained, and probably on converter boxes, too.  Too much time and money has been dedicated to ensuring a successful transition to run that risk.”