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DTV Transition Test Run: The FCC Chairman Speaks

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin says the FCC is already applying lessons from Wilmington, pointing to the decision two weeks ago to send commissioners and or staff to 80-some markets identified as of highest risk of DTV dislocation. In this extensive interview with B&C’s John Eggerton, he defends the job the FCC and broadcasters have done getting Wilmington viewers ready. But he bristles at criticisms that the commission started the process too late and with two few markets.

Are you ready for Wilmington?

 I certainly think we have made a lot of progress in Wilmington. I haven’t seen it but I was told a letter the editor in a Wilmington newspaper three weeks ago said, “Enough already with the Sept. 8 test. If you don’t know what’s happening in Wilmington, where have you been?”

We have been doing a very good job of trying to get the message out by working with the broadcasters, the cable operators, local community groups. We’ve had staff on the ground for months.

 We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who were asking for coupons to be able to go buy converter boxes. We have seen a significant number of those coupons not only mailed out, but redeemed. That is a good indication of the progress we have been making.

An even better indication was that the broadcasters did a soft test where the broadcasters turned [the analog signal] off for a minute. They had a number to call that said if you are not prepared then that means that you need to take some more steps to be prepared for Sept. 8. We haven’t gotten a single call yet from someone who doesn’t know what they need to do.

Do you have any sense of how many people have hooked up those boxes successfully rather than simply redeeming the coupons?

 First. Wilmington has about 180,000 households, with just about 14,000 of them over-the-air. We have had 60,000 coupons requested from households. They have been mailed to 56,000. About 20,000 customers have redeemed those coupons and actually bought the boxes. Over 21,000 boxes have been purchased with the coupons. I don’t know how many have actually been bought from the store, taken up and hooked up to the television, but I am confident that a significant number of them that have already been hooked up.

What do you hope to learn from the test?

 We hope to be able to learn both what was effective in educating the community about the upcoming transition. We hope to be able to learn what steps we need to take to not only make sure they are aware of it but how we can inform them about what steps they need to take. We hope to learn from a technical standpoint what the broadcasters need to do to make sure that their signals are up and running and cover basically the same geographically area and license area.  So, we are going to learn about both any technical and engineering difficulties and making sure we are educating people effectively.

How will you specifically apply that going forward?

 Obviously we are going to try to incorporate the lessons learned in Wilmington as we move to this transition across the country. We are definitely going to have a playbook and we will figure out what we have learned and what can be most effective, and we are already taking that on the road.

 One of the reasons I thought it was important to announce we were going to go and do actual events with commissioners in each of the local markets that are most at risk was because of the effectiveness of how we saw that work down in Wilmington. When you are able to organize around a day when you can saturate the market with the message by having a big local event of some kind at a senior center or town hall and also have commissioners go talk to the local newspapers, get on local TV and radio, working with retailers and really get that message out, I think that we have seen that that is a very effective way.

Any idea how much it cost the FCC for Wilmington?

 Our best estimate is that we spent somewhere between $100,000 and $125,000 for all of our efforts down there over the last four months.

That doesn’t sound like a lot.

 A lot of this has been the events we organized down there, but the community itself has helped organize events. So, we are going to locations and events that are occurring. We spent $20 at a thrift store to buy an analog TV so we can show someone what it looks like when they hook up a converter box to it. Don’t get me wrong. There are costs. But I think this has been very effective at getting this message out at a very grassroots level.

How many staffers are down there?

 There have been about 25 staffers who have been down there at one point or other, but at any one time there have been three to five staffers there. There are five counties there. We have tried to have someone in each county going to the local events and festivals during the week. We have a lot of volunteers down there as well.

Remind us again how the FCC chose Wilmington?

 I asked the staff to do an analysis about which of the markets around the country would be capable of doing an early transition. They identified only a handful of markets, seven including Wilmington, in which the broadcasters already had their licenses assigned; where if they ramped up the digital signal, it would not interfere with anyone of the other analog and digital signals in the community; and where they were capable of finishing construction in time to do a test as early as this fall.

So you were not looking at markets with a high multichannel video penetration, as Wilmington has?

 No, not at all. I had no idea and we didn’t even look at what the penetration was or the over-the-air household penetration was.

 And I think this is important to know, for people who want to be critical about us doing Wilmington: We have said since the beginning that we will do any other market that wants to come forward and volunteer to go early and we haven’t found any other market that is willing to.

Is there still time to do that?

 We would still be willing to. We spent four months down in Wilmington and there are only six months left for the transition for the whole country. But if some other markets came forward and said they wanted to we would be happy to try to take some of the lessons learned in Wilmington and also try to implement them there, but we are running out of time..

At a hearing on the transition, Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida said he thought A Florida market might be willing to make the switch early.

  I contacted both the Florida Association of Broadcasters and one city in Florida that was one on the list—Gainesvillle—and we couldn’t get anyone in Florida to volunteer to go forward.

Any outstanding issues with delivering station signals to cable head-ends?

 Not that I am aware of. The cable operators we have contacted have said it has all been taken care of and we are not aware of any particular problems there, no.

How do you plan to deal with any dislocated viewers, particularly in the target populations of poor or elderly,  if there are any who didn’t get the message or hook up the boxes?

 We have been trying to work with the grassroots organizations to get the message out to help people who are having a hard time hooking up their boxes. For example, we have an arrangement with the local fire stations where they have a special phone number they have set up and if you are homebound and not able to get to the store, they will come and buy your converter box. They will come and get your coupon, go to the store, buy your converter box for you, come home and hook it up for you.

 We also worked with the equivalent of the Meals on Wheels program in Wilmington that delivers hundreds of meals to senior citizens and others who are homebound, and we tried to work with them early on to make sure they had the applications so they could apply for the converter boxes. Now we are trying to work with fire departments and others to make sure the boxes are hooked up.

So, can the FCC afford to do this same kind of outreach nationwide?

 I think two things are important to put in context. Wilmington is doing this without the benefit of a lot of the national resources that the rest of the country is going to get.. Today, there have been around half a million PSAs that have been run by broadcasters across the country, and those are increasing as we approach the DTV transition next February. But, Wilmington did not receive any of the benefits of those national PSAs because they were all saying that the transition was going to occur next February.

 So, what is important to put in context is that some of the special efforts that the grassroots organizations and the communities put in there were because it had a special date different from 2009.

 But, we are taking that same playbook and trying to apply it on a community-by-community basis. That is why we targeted the most at-risk markets and are doing the kind of events and building local awareness. And, in addition to targeting the 81 markets we think are most at risk [with at least 100,000 over-the-air-only households or at least 15% of the market], we have already implemented a speakers bureau. Even if you are not in one of those 81 markets or if you want to have someone [explain the transition] on a different day, we will have an FCC official come to speak to you anytime that you need it.

Are you monitoring the ‘cliff effect?’ [You either get a digital signal, or you don’t]

 Our engineers, generally, are trying to estimate what the cliff effect will end up being across the country. But our engineers from our office of engineering technology have been down in Wilmington to try to measure what they can now as broadcasters finalize their digital equipment and get it in place. And we’ll be down there again right afterwards to see what we can learn from what is going on.

Remind me of how big a problem you expect that to be nationwide.

 Our estimates are that you could have 5% of viewers impacted by the digital cliff effect. But 85% of people subscribe to cable [and satellite] so it is 5% of the other 15% that are over-the-air households that could be affected. It could be slightly higher because when you go into rural areas that are more likely to be susceptible to the cliff effect, the over-the-air penetration goes up slightly, so it could be 5% of 18%. .

Shouldn’t  you have started looking for test markets sooner than you did?

 No. As it was, there were only seven markets in the country that were even ready this fall. And Wilmington, while they were ready in September, we actually talked to them about trying to do the test earlier, but the broadcasters themselves couldn’t get ready because they weren’t all ready in May when we reached out to them.

Will you be having an event Sept. 8 to mark the switch?

 We are trying to work with the local community to plan something, so I am confident we will have some kind of event..  We have been working with Mayor Saffo and broadcasters.

Will you be down there?


Would you like to be the one to throw the switch?

 Sure. I am going to get blamed for it anyway. Good or bad, I’m going to get blamed, so I might as well get to do that.