Transition Has Copps 'Really Worried’

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Washington— Worried that the public knows too little about the cutoff of analog TV in February 2009, Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps said last Tuesday that a private-sector partnership with government was needed to ensure that millions of consumers don’t lose access to their local TV stations.

“This is a big deal,” Copps, a Democrat, said at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention here, in a joint appearance with Republican commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. “We all have to put our heads together. I’m a big believer in public-private sector partnerships. We’ve got to have outreach.”

Copps said he remained concerned that, in the end, too many consumers might be “left behind.”

NOISE IN THE FORECAST

No one, he added, should expect the disenfranchised to accept their fate quietly.

“The repercussion of this and the cost that little government agencies and Congress and the private sector are going to pay if this goes awry are going to be tremendous. We’ll all be out here trying to get a few bucks out of the slot machines to make a living if this goes south,” Copps said.

But Copps didn’t provide details about the kind of program he wanted developed between now and the arrival of Feb. 17, 2009, the date Congress set for the termination of over-the-air analog television transmission.

Even though many months remain before TV stations have to rely exclusively on digital signals, Copps said it wasn’t too early to blitz the public with information on how to cope with the fact that analog sets not connected to a pay TV service would be unable to display digital signals without assistance from digital-to-analog converter boxes.

NAB TV stations members, though, aren’t planning to launch a massive public-service announcement campaign over their airwaves until spring 2008.

“I’ve got to tell you, I am really worried about this entire transition process,” Copps said. “We have got to start taking this seriously, closing business on [Feb. 17] … or I think Congressman Dingell’s prediction of a fine mess is really going to come true.”

In 2006, Congress allocated $1.5 billion to subsidize consumer access to millions of digital-to-analog converter boxes. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has suggested that the money won’t be enough to meet demand over the next 22 months.

According to some estimates, 69 million analog TV sets are at risk, but the subsidy program would fund by law no more than 33.5 million converter boxes after subtracting the full $160 million that the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) may spend on administrative costs.

Each household is eligible for two $40 coupons until the program’s first $890 million is gone. Only broadcast-only homes may receive coupons funded by the remaining $450 million.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has predicted that box demand wouldn’t exceed 21.8 million units. Since the first $890 million would fund 22.25 million converter boxes, Upton has expressed confidence that current funding levels were easily sufficient to meet demand.

Copps said the DTV transition was just as serious as the so-called Y2K problem, which had governments around the world fearing that a software problem would cause widespread computer crashes on Jan. 1, 2000 because programs designed to record years up to “99” suddenly had to deal with four-digit dates like “2000.”

“This DTV transition is a stealth process compared to that,” Copps, who worked in the Clinton Administration’s Commerce Department during Y2K, said. “We were meeting all the time. Everybody said it was kind of overkill. At the end of the day, there was not a crisis. Maybe that was good luck, maybe it was misjudgment of the problem, or maybe it was the fact that actually we coordinated a lot of activity, did a lot of outreach. Everybody was glued to their television set.”

Tate said she hoped all the publicity generated by the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline would mean that the analog cutoff would be “the same nonevent that Y2K ended up being.”

The NTIA has received $5 million to fund a public outreach campaign. The United Kingdom, which has 60 million residents, compared to 300 million in the U.S., is spending $400 million to market consumer awareness about its own DTV transition, Copps noted.

SPREADING THE WORD

NAB has teamed with the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association to spread the word as best they can about the pending analog cutoff.

Shermaze Ingram, director of media relations for NAB’s internal DTV transition task force, said the goal of the Digital Television Transition Coalition was “to make sure that no consumer loses television reception on Feb. 17, 2009 due to a lack of information about the transition.” The emphasis on consumer education was vital, she added, because a coalition survey found that 60% of consumers “have no idea” about the shift from analog to digital TV.

“So we have got our work cut out for us in terms of the need for information out there,” she said last Monday.

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