TV Transition On Trial


The Federal Communications Commission is considering whether to conduct a digital-TV transition in at least one test market before the national cutoff of over-the-air analog TV on Feb. 17, 2009, FCC Democrat Michael Copps said in a statement last Monday.

“I recognize there may be legal, technical and practical challenges with planning and conducting such a test this close to the national transition date. But I believe it can be done,” Copps said, without suggesting any times, dates and locations.

A spokeswoman for FCC chairman Kevin Martin could not confirm that Copps's proposal was under discussion. Copps, in theory at least, appears to be thinking about cutting off analog TV signals in a market or two for a brief period to gauge the true penetration of digital reception equipment and consumer reaction to the loss of service.

Under a 2006 law, all 1,756 full-power TV stations are to halt analog service abruptly on Feb. 17, 2009. A handful of stations in various markets have already made the transition, but only with prior FCC approval. The agency has been willing to allow analog stations to surrender their licenses early if they demonstrated that their over-the-air audience was almost immeasurable.

The DTV transition will impact every TV household, especially the 14% of TV homes that rely exclusively on local TV signals. Broadcast-only and pay TV homes combined have 69 million analog sets that use a rabbit ears antenna to receive TV programming, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

But adoption of digital — spurred on by high-definition programming supplied by TV stations, cable operators and satellite TV — has been occurring at a fast clip. Two weeks ago, the Consumer Electronics Association announced that 50% of U.S. homes now have a DTV set and that another 32 million sets are expected to be sold in 2008. The U.S. has 109 million occupied households.

The NAB has not taken a position on Copps's DTV proposal for a test market.

“Creating a DTV 'test market' is an interesting idea, which was used in both Britain and Sweden during their transitions to digital broadcasting,” said Jonathan Collegio, the NAB's vice president of the digital TV transition.

Whether the FCC has legal authority to order analog stations in a market to participate in a DTV-transition trial is just one of many questions it would need to resolve, an agency official said last Wednesday.

Some D.C. policymakers fear that millions of consumers — especially those in broadcast-only homes — are going to react with anger if their TV sets don't function on Feb. 18, 2009. Copps in particular has been predicting doom for many months, mainly because he believes the U.S. government hasn't invested enough money in consumer education.

The Government Accountability Office, in a recent report that echoed prior congressional testimony, expressed concern about the DTV transition. It found “no comprehensive plan or strategy to measure progress and results.” The FCC and the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration are sharing DTV transition oversight duties.

Martin had the FCC issue a statement in response to the GAO report that said his agency “has been planning for the DTV transition for more than 20 years” and “many of the DTV deadlines and milestones that Congress established were built around the FCC's own timeline for implementing multiple aspects of the transition.”

Private industry is helping out. The cable industry has launched a $200 million consumer education program, and TV stations have a similar $691 million effort. The U.S. Commerce Department has been given just $4 million.

Copps has pointed out that the United Kingdom, with 60 million people, has spent $400 million on DTV transition consumer education.

“Pulling the switch on stations all across the land at one and the same time in February 2009 is going to be a real throw of the dice. It is unfathomable to me that we are planning to turn off every analog signal in the country on a single day without running at least one test market first,” Copps said.

In his statement, Copps indicated that Martin and unnamed “colleagues” have agreed “to sit down now and begin exploring the idea of one or more DTV demonstration projects” in several markets.

An FCC official said that a discussion was just beginning.