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DTV Stakeholders Mark 100 Days Until Analog Shut-Off

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With NBC White House correspondent David Gregory calling on reporters from the podium rather than asking the questions, broadcasters, government officials and other stakeholders marked the 100th day 'til the Feb. 17, DTV transition date with a littany of past deeds and pledges of more to come.

The tenor of the press conference at the Newseum Monday morning--delayed briefly by a fire drill--was that government and industry had been working well together to alert viewers of the switc and that most people were aware of it

For instance, David Rehr pointed out that 150 stations in 49 markets had conducted soft analog shut-off tests. He said that next week, TV stations in Pennsylvania would be holding a statewide analog cut-off test, which he called the largest such test to date.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who flashed his own DTV-to-analog converter box coupon during the event, said cooperation had been crucial. Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate praised the billion-dollar industry education campaign, but said the transition was about more than pretty pictures, saying it was also about saving lives and using spectrum more efficiently.

Commissioner Robert McDowell put in a plug for soft analog cut-off tests, more long-form PSAs and tailoring messages to local markets. 

"With only 60 seconds," he joked, "I won't be talking about the Fairness Doctrine today." The reference was to the growing concern that Democrats may push for reimposition of the FCC doctrine requiring broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues.

The DTV transition event was not entirely a mutual admiration society meeting--though there was agreement the Feb. 17 date was going to stick.

Joe Uva, CEO of Univision, said that Nielsen had severely understimated the number of over-the-air households, pointing out that his Hispanic viewer constituency was particularly at risk of losing TV signals (Univision has aired over 70,000 PSA's, he said). "we need to have accurate counts of all consumers, and especially Hispanics in this country, who may be receiving their signal free to air."

"As we learned from our tests in Wilmington, NC, and seven soft analog tests we participated in various markets around the country, Nielsen has understimated potentially up to 40-50% the acdtual nubmer of people" who will need cable, satellite or a converter box," he said.

Uva said his company and Nielsen had been discussing the, but also said it needed to be resolved.

"We're pretty confident our number is right," said Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes in response to Uva's comments, adding that, "We have been in close contact with our clients on this issue. We recognize this is an iimportant matter for out clients and our goal is to provide the best estimate that we can based on wahat we observe in the sample [of 16,000 households, or about 45,00 poeple," he said].

Mark Lloyd, VP of strategic initiatives for the Leadership Conference On Civil Rights, said the FCC and others needed to work together to make sure there was a "rapid response" team in place after the transition to help deal with those who might have lost their signals despite the government and industry efforts. "It is time to honestly ackonwledge that many Americans will turn on their analog televisions on Feb. 8 and find themselves in the dark."

Martin said the FCC had plans to expand its call center for fielding calls for help from viewers, and would continue to work with grass roots organizations "to make sure that they have plans in place trying to help consumers on the ground." The FCC has gotten some more money from Congress for the transition and will use some of that money.

But Lloyd, who said he has discussed his concerns with President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, was not completely satisfied with that answer. While conceding the FCC and others had worked hard, he said a more coordinated effort was needed. "The transition is complicated and confused. We've got multiple agencies involved in this... We don't think there is a unified approach...and there needs to be."

Lloyd said he understood there were very important priorities with the economy, Afghanistan and Iraq, but said it was also important to make sure people still had access to over-the-air TV, equating it with a civil right. He said he thought it would be "wonderful" if President-elect Obama would use his "bully pulpit," as one reporter called it, to talk up the DTV transition.