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Baker: Stations Should Offer DTV Converter Boxes

Broadcasters should consider stocking digital-TV-to-analog converter boxes themselves and be ready to give them out free-of-charge to viewers who need them as a "stopgap measure" for over-the air viewers.

That was one of the suggestions from acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration head Meredith Attwell Baker at an Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) DTV summit in Washington, D.C., Monday.

She was offering up some of the lessons learned from the DTV test in Wilmington, N.C., where the plug was pulled early on analog TV Sept. 8.

Baker pointed out that broadcasters could put their station logos on the boxes, which would allow them to build brand awareness while they were helping out.

Baker had several suggestions. She said broadcasters should also make a point of including their own station phone numbers on DTV-education messages online and on-air to make sure they are a local point of contact for viewers who need help with reception or connection issues. "There is no better local source of expertise and knowledge about preparing for the DTV transition than a nearby broadcast-television station,” she said.

At a separate session, National Association of Broadcasters president David Rehr stumped for a government-run national call center to answer viewer questions, saying that would help the transition to run more smoothly.

Baker called so-called soft analog-cutoff tests "creative and useful" but urged broadcasters to be more creative with the tests and make them longer.

That was echoed at a separate session by Eloise Gore, associate chief of the Federal Communications Commission's Media Bureau. She said the FCC was working with broadcasters to coordinate the soft cutoff tests, and it was important to conduct the tests several times per day, and for more that several minutes at a time.

She added to look for the FCC to come out with some suggestions on best practices for those tests, although she pointed out that stations don't need the FCC's permission to conduct them.

William Check of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said one problem with the soft tests was that if a cable operator gets the station signal over-the-air, analog cable viewers will see the same snow and message that they aren't prepared for the transition as analog-only over-the-air viewers get, which is wrong.

He added that broadcasters should include a note that cable subscribers are getting the test graphic, so "they don't have to worry."

The FCC and stations got the most viewer calls in Wilmington over issues of reception and hooking up converter boxes or scanning for new channels. Baker said the takeaway for various stakeholders was to refine the educational message to talk about the technical challenges, including antenna needs, service contours and scanning.

Helping viewers to deal with the logistics of setting up boxes, rescanning for channels or understanding whether or not they would need a new antenna appear to have been some of the key lessons learned from Wilmington, although Rudy Brioche, aide to FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, told the MSTV crowd that rather than lessons learned, it was dealing with issues the FCC had been avoiding and his boss had been talking about.