Teaching the Transition


Washington— With almost exactly two years to go, three major trade organizations this week will detail a coordinated campaign to educate American consumers that their rabbit-ear-style television sets could soon be useless.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association at press time were in final planning stages for a press conference to be held here, where they will unveil a nationwide public-relations offensive to tell consumers that conventional, over-the-air analog television sets will be obsolete early in 2009.

The date of obsolescence: Feb. 17, 2009. That’s when a law requiring all broadcast signals to be transmitted as streams of digits, signed last February by President Bush, takes effect. Digital broadcasting is the mandatory replacement for the analog waves that carried radio and television broadcasts throughout the 20th century.

The three trade groups, while often in conflict, decided to create a unified campaign to inform 300 million U.S. citizens of the imminent change, in response to claims from key Congressional leaders that their industries had the scale and resources to do so.

“We are coming together to make sure the transition is a success as we head into the two-year-out mark,” CEA vice president of communications Jason Oxman said.

This coming Saturday is Feb. 17.

The announcement is set to occur at a Washington, D.C., press conference at a location that has not been selected.

“We are getting together to announce that we are putting aside whatever differences we may have and working toward this DTV-education effort. Each of the three of us is going to devote significant resources to it,” Oxman said.

The digital-television transition is, in some ways, akin to the Y2K transition for computers in 2000. In that case, computer users had to prepare their machines to accept dates in four-digit fields, instead of two. The television transition is more encompassing — consumers will need TV sets or adapters that allow them to receive all their programming as digits.

Consumer education is considered vital to making a transition as successful as the close-to-flawless computer transition on Jan. 1, 2000. The worst fear this time: a TV-industry equivalent of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, with a flood of viewers unable to watch their favorite programs on Feb. 18, 2009.

The end of analog broadcasting could leave about 73 million analog TVs vulnerable to going dark unless they are connected to converter boxes, an analog-cable programming service or satellite-TV boxes that can translate digital signals.

The Bush administration has earmarked $1.5 billion to subsidize boxes that would convert digital signals into analog ones for display on old-style sets. But the federal government has just $5 million to get the message out that consumers can apply for two $40 coupons to defray the cost of converter boxes purchased at retail stores.

The trade-group leaders plan to discuss how their groups can expand the educational effort. Except for the creation of a Web site, the groups haven’t worked out many details. The value of the effort, whether in cash or in kind, hasn’t been established either.

In Feb. 7 correspondence to House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders, Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, predicted a consumer backlash if the transition is managed poorly.

“Failure to administer a comprehensive national DTV-transition plan will almost certainly result in a tsunami of consumer complaints to congressional and other government offices from viewers across the country. To better manage this potential national disruption, I would recommend establishing a clear chain of command,” Adelstein said.

Federal oversight of the digital-TV transition is shared by the FCC and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Neither currently has authority to order analog-TV stations to stay on the air after Feb. 17, 2009, to prevent serious consumer dislocation at a time when the country’s northern tier is subject to heavy snowfall.

Congress set a firm date because it wanted to collect $10 billion from the sale of analog-TV spectrum that became surplus in an all-digital environment and to allocate channels to fire, police and emergency crews that need to communicate via the same frequencies.