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DTV Powers Convene At Converter Kickoff

It felt like a DTV version of the Yalta conference, when the allies met during World War II to decide thefate of the post-war world.

Ok, not quite, but the DTV converter box/coupon program kickoff/photo op at a Northwest Washington Best Buy did unite the major players in the move of TV broadcasting from an analog to a digital world, and to make sure viewers know what is coming.

On hand were U.S. Commerce Secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, Best Buy Senior VicePresident Michael Vitelli, NAB President David K. Rehr, NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow and  

CEA Vice President Jason Oxman, all of whom spokes, as well as National Telecommunications & Information Adminsitration head Meredith Atwell Baker. CEA President Gary Shapiro would have been there, but he was at a board meeting in Utah.

The message was that much has been done to educate TV viewers that about their options in the digital age, which are to get a converter box if they have an analog-only set and want to receive over the air signals, hook up to cable or satellite, or buy a new DTV or HDTV set.

NTIA is overseeing the program, and has said boxes will be on the shelves Feb. 17, 2008, when it will start processing coupon requests. Consumers have been able to apply for the coupons since Jan. 1, and over two million people have already applied for over 4 million coupons (a maximum of two to a customer).

Michael Vitelli reminded an audience of reporters and the occasional intersted Best Buy shopper that his chain had been the first to stop selling analog TV's back in october, and called the upcoming transition "one of the most important days in communications history," as flashes flashed and a host of reporters looked on.

That day was the official announcement that DTV-to-analog converter boxes are now available in Best Buy, Radio Shack and Wal-Mart stores. Best Buy also unveiled its new hot line-877-BBY-DTV9, where customers can get information about the transition and eventually redeem their coupons and purchase the boxes over the phone.

Vitelli said the transition was unprecedented for retailers as well as the media, saying it had required revising its point of sales systema and retraining employees.

Asked why hooking up to cable was option number two for a transition that is primarily broadcast, FCC Chairman Martin conceded the education message would probably be different depending on who was giving it out, saying cable could be expected to recruit viewers to its service, broadcasters to tout the benefits of over the air, and consumer electronics companies to try and sell converter boxes and TVs.

NAB President David Rehr did not disappoint, touting the benefits of crisper pictures and new services, " and its free!," he said, speaking before a bank of monitors all showing a DTV converter box coupon, which resembles, and for good reason, a government-issued gift card.

Rehr also said that as part of what he called a $1 billion education effort, broadcasters would be launching a new set of public service announcements later this month that focus on the coupon program.

Chairman Martin has proposed requiring broadcasters to air a certain minimum number of PSAs, but broadcasters have countered with their own proposal that the FCC exempt from such rules any broadcaster who commits to voluntarily exceed that minimum.

Martin said the that he and the others were united in an effort to make sure viewers don't wake up to a blank screen on Feb. 18, 2009, when the plug is pulled on most analog signals (low-power stations and TV translators are not required to make the switch at that time).

The coupons--worth $40 apiece toward the purchase of a convter box costing anywhere from $40 to $70--expire within 90 days, so having them on the shelves when NTIA starts issuing them is important. Asked why only three retailers had them on the shelves, Secretary Gutierrez pointed out that those three already had the boxes, so were early, and that he thought they would be widely available by the time consumers started getting their coupons. He also said there should be enough coupons for everyone who needs them.

That was echoed by the Consumer Electronics Association's Jason Oxman, although CEA and NAB differ on their figures. NAB says 17% of households are analog-only, while CEA puts the fiture at 11%.

Rehr said he would have to wait and see whether there were enough coupons, saying he expected an increase in requests spurred by the NAB's new education efforts. If it looks like they are going to run out he said, he would ask the government for more funds for more coupons.

The event was initially scheduled for next week, closer to the one year pre-anniversary of the  Feb. 17, 2009, hard date for the switch to digital, but Congress had other ideas, scheduling a couple of DTV transition update hearings that forced the move to this week.