Skip to main content

Don’t Panic. Yet.

Washington— “It’s too soon to panic,” said Philip Lombardo, CEO of Citadel Communications, a Bronxville, N.Y., company that owns four TV stations. “It’s too soon to say we can’t accomplish it.”

Lombardo, who also serves on the executive committee of the 8,300-member National Association of Broadcasters, was referring to the digital-television transition — a federally imposed flip of the switch on Feb. 17, 2009. That’s almost exactly two years from today.

When that winter Tuesday arrives, just 16 days after the Super Bowl and 28 days after the next presidential inauguration, each full-power TV station in the land will need to turn off its traditional analog signal and send all programs over the air as digits.

Analog TV sets can’t translate digital signals. Without the proper equipment to convert those digits back into wave-like analog signals, 73 million analog TVs dispersed among 109 million U.S. TV households, including cable and satellite TV homes, are expected to go dark.

If millions of consumers find they suddenly can’t watch TV because of this government fiat, they are not expected to receive the news with polite calm.

“If we don’t get this right, we could face a tsunami of public outrage,” Federal Communications Commission Democrat Jonathan Adelstein has warned.

Congressional leaders who designed the DTV transition hope that Feb. 17, 2009 is a non-event that comes and goes as peacefully as did Jan. 1, 2000 — when scary speculation held that the Y2K software problem would cause widespread computer crashes, when programs designed only to record years up to “99” suddenly had to deal with four-digit dates like “2000.”

At least one House member thinks the DTV transition schedule is too aggressive. If that’s the case, here’s the problem: Instead of being just another day on the calendar, Feb. 17, 2009 could turn into the TV industry’s equivalent of Hurricane Katrina, leaving millions of unsuspecting citizens cut off from a vital source of communications.

“I think that date is absurd. It’s far too early,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, soon after voting against the 2006 law that established the so-called DTV hard date.


The mechanics of the transition were worked out by House and Senate Republicans, who used their majority power to include the hard date in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 [Public Law No: 109-204]. The analog cutoff, signed into law by President Bush last February, was codified as The Digital Television and Public Safety Act of 2005.

By forcing TV stations from their analog channels by a specific deadline, the DTV law cleared the way for the FCC to auction off what would become surplus analog spectrum for at least $10 billion, paid by companies, perhaps even cable companies, that want to grab the channels for wireless broadband services. The other channels are to go for free to fire, police and emergency organizations hungry for new frequencies.

The legislation didn’t leave the DTV transition solely in the hands of the free market. Included is up to $1.5 billion to subsidize digital-to-analog converter boxes.

The federal program will allocate up to two $40 coupons for each eligible recipient to purchase such boxes. But the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) hasn’t announced final eligibility criteria.

The NTIA has tentatively concluded that pay TV subscribers wouldn’t be permitted to seek coupons. A ban on well-to-do broadcast-only homes is another proposal.

The coupon program could be underfunded.

The U.S. has about 20 million homes that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting, according to government officials and industry executives. These homes have 45 million analog TV sets. A $40 coupon for each TV set would cost $1.8 billion.

Providing coupons for the 28 million analog sets in pay TV homes which rely on a rabbit-ears antenna would raise the price tag to nearly $3 billion.

“I think we probably need more funds to underwrite the boxes and I think that’s probably going to happen, so people who have second and third sets in their homes aren’t disenfranchised,” Lombardo said.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who sought maximum funding to ensure that no analog TV went dark, said it was possible Congress would boost converter-box funding.

“With all the things on my plate at the moment, I’m not planning to mount that effort, but I would certainly support it if somebody else did,” said Boucher, who became chairman of the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee in January.


Demand for converter-box coupons might be difficult to gauge. Cable and satellite subscribers might opt out by deciding to connect standalone analog sets to their pay TV services. Broadcast-only homes might replace some or all analog TVs with digital units over the next 24 months.

Citing Consumer Electronics Association data, NTIA believes that 115 million digital TV sets will be sold by the end of 2008. That’s roughly one per U.S. TV household. But the sales data will not likely reveal the extent to which the purchase of DTV sets has caused consumers to junk their functioning analog TVs.

The DTV law included $5 million to fund an NTIA consumer-outreach program. More extensive consumer-awareness provisions contained in House legislation didn’t make it into the final law. As a result, educating the public about the DTV transition was left to the consumer electronics, cable, satellite TV and broadcast-TV industries.

The task may be formidable. On Jan. 31, the Association of Public Television stations released a survey showing that 61% of Americans polled “had no idea the transition was taking place.” The poll also found that a majority of broadcast-only homes were unaware of the transition and its impact on free TV service.

The CEA, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and the National Association of Broadcasters came together last week to announce a cooperative effort to inform the public about the DTV transition. Yet key details still need to be ironed out.

NAB has created a small DTV transition team staffed by people with political campaign and media-outreach experience. NAB vice president Jonathan Collegio, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee until late last year, was tapped by NAB president David Rehr to lead the organization’s effort.

“The idea is to look at DTV consumer education like a political campaign,” Collegio said. “We have digital television as a candidate. We have a Feb. 17, 2009 election day. We want to make sure our candidate wins the election two years from now.”

At first, Collegio’s team will begin by seeking broad media coverage of the DTV transition, hoping the issue receives prominent treatment again and again.

“We’re going to be reaching out to small newspapers, large newspapers, small television stations, small radio stations — all the way, A to Z, to make sure that DTV has a positive, ubiquitous presence in the media from now until 2009 so consumers know what they need to do to navigate the transition,” Collegio said.

In 2008, the NAB plan calls for the extensive broadcast of public-service announcements on the DTV transition.

“The hope is that by bringing this message to as many consumers as possible that no consumer will lose reception due to a lack of information,” Collegio said. “Some consumers may choose to go dark and choose to no longer have television reception and there’s not really anything we can do about that.”

Broadcasters are not quietly planning to lobby Congress to scuttle the hard date at the same time they are blitzing the airwaves with public alerts about the need to buy digital TVs or obtain converter boxes.

“We can’t take that position,” Lombardo said. “The industry is committed to that hard date. We are going to do everything we possibly can to make it happen.”

The DTV education campaign, projected to cost $100 million in cash and in-kind promotional efforts, could result in a waste of time and money if Congress decides to postpone the hard because consumers have failed to acquired DTV sets or converter boxes in sufficient numbers.

Manufacturers are ramping up production of converter boxes to meet the Feb. 17, 2009 deadline, Boucher said.

“The hard date definitely will stay,” Boucher predicted. “I don’t think a persuasive argument could be made by anyone at this point that it ought to be changed.”