Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin rejected charges made last Wednesday on Capitol Hill that his agency and the Bush Administration have failed to take command of the national conversion to all-digital TV broadcasting in early 2009.
“There is no confusion at the [FCC]. We are committed to putting polices in place to ensure a smooth transition,” Martin said through a spokeswoman. “Last week, the [FCC] unanimously adopted rules to ensure that analog cable subscribers can still view broadcast stations after the transition.”
The DTV transition will have a direct impact on an estimated 20 million broadcast-only homes with analog TV sets incompatible with digital signals, and with millions of analog TVs in cable and satellite TV homes not connected to either pay TV service.
Martin’s response came after a Government Accountability Office official said in Senate testimony that no one at the FCC, an independent agency with leadership picked by President Bush, or within the administration itself has asserted leadership authority.
“It’s pretty clear to us, based on the initial work we have done, that there is no one in charge,” said Mark Goldstein, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure.
Goldstein indicated that the FCC’s ability to take charge has been hampered by internal disputes.
“There seems to be confusion even on the part of the FCC, between the chairman and some other commissioners, regarding what its responsibilities are for the transition in various public documents in recent months,” he said.
Under current law, every full-power TV station is to terminate analog service on Feb. 17, 2009, a little more than 500 days away and coming just weeks after a new president has been installed in the White House.
Some of the confusion found by the GAO could be the result of the 2006 law that created the analog TV cutoff. The law ordered the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to create and supervise a $1.5 billion program to subsidize digital-to-analog converters and spend $5 million on public outreach.
But the law didn’t provide the FCC with any new duties in the final years of the transition — even though the agency has been at the regulatory forefront of DTV transition policy for two decades.
Goldstein’s point about internal FCC divisions became evident when Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein testified before the Senate Commerce Committee Special Committee on Aging immediately after the GAO official.
Adelstein took a swipe at Martin’s leadership, saying plenty of good ideas on public education exist but have not been put into action.
“Unfortunately, the FCC’s DTV outreach and education efforts today have been lackluster at best,” Adelstein said. “There has been a lack of leadership, focus and resources for putting these ideas into action.”
Adelstein, for example, called for the establishment of a federal DTV task force with sufficient staff and money to ensure that government and industry spoke with one voice and provided the public with clear and simple information on a constant basis for the next 17 months.
“Like any advertising campaign, you want to hit it over and over again and you want it to be consistent to sink in,” Adelstein said.
The FCC is already a member of the DTV Transition Coalition, which includes all the major TV trade groups and more than 100 other stakeholders.
NTIA director John Kneuer, testifying for the Bush Administration, disagreed that Adelstein’s government task force was a good idea. He also rejected the notion that a single message made any sense when TV stations, cable operators, and satellite TV providers do not have identical relationships with their viewers and subscribers.
“Cable certainly has a very different message than the broadcasters have, and satellite likewise,” Kneuer said. “There is a danger to a unified message.”
Kneuer told the Senate panel that he doubted a major consumer dislocation would occur, because every TV station and pay-TV provider had a very large financial stake in ensuring a successful DTV transition
“This is a huge market opportunity and a huge market danger for all of these entities,” he said.
Although surveys show that public awareness of the DTV transition today is low, cable has committing $200 million to turn that around through televised educational public service announcements. The National Association of Broadcasters is planning to unveil its major educational initiative next week. Some TV stations have already started to air DTV awareness spots.