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FCC To Go on U.S. Tour

Over the next six months, the five members of the Federal Communications Commission plan to individually jet to 81 markets to host public meetings about the nationwide transition to all-digital TV broadcasts required for full-power stations set for Feb. 17, 2009.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin, announcing the tour last Monday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., said the markets are those the agency believes are “most at-risk” because they represent a large number of people who may not be prepared for the shutoff of analog TV signals.

The 81 cities each have more than 100,000 households or at least 15% of households that rely solely on over-the-air signals for TV. The list includes the country’s biggest metro areas such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Martin said the tour was made possible because Congress recently approved $12 million for consumer education related to the digital TV transition. The FCC had requested $20 million for DTV education as part of its 2009 budget.

In each market, one FCC commissioner will play host to town-hall meetings, workshops and roundtable meetings. In addition, each commissioner will be available for interviews with local press.

Martin said the local events will be patterned after the outreach initiative the FCC has conducted in Wilmington, N.C., which has included appearances at fairs, libraries and farmers’ markets (see “Getting the Word Out in Wilmington,” Aug. 18, page 9). Wilmington is serving as a test case for the digital-TV transition, with local stations there slated to shut off analog broadcasts Sept. 8.

“One of the things we’ve learned from our efforts in Wilmington is that it’s particularly helpful to have people on the ground,” Martin said.

Starting at noon on Sept. 8, the five local stations in Wilmington — WWAY (ABC), WSFX-TV (Fox), WECT (NBC), WILM-LP (CBS) and W51CW (Trinity Broadcasting) — will transmit an informational message over their analog airwaves telling viewers of their options for receiving digital broadcast signals. The FCC last week said that in the event of an emergency, such as a hurricane, the stations may elect to provide emergency information and announcements on their old analog channels.

The FCC also will coordinate with the National Association of Broadcasters to see if additional local stations can participate in a “soft turnoff” of analog signals to determine consumer readiness for the digital-TV transition, Martin said.

Jim Yager, the NAB’s television-board chairman and CEO of Barrington Broadcasting in Hoffman Estates, Ill., said 30 stations have already conducted soft shutoff tests. “It is an awesome display of creativity by our member stations,” Yager said.

Martin himself will be traveling to many of the locales, although the FCC has not disclosed yet which markets each commissioner will be visiting.

He said the commissioners decided which cities to visit through “the equivalent of the NFL draft”— each member picked a city, one at a time, until all markets were accounted for.

In addition to the 81-market tour, the FCC has established a speakers’ bureau for any group to request a speaker to come and discuss the digital-TV transition.

Martin said the digital-TV tour wasn’t spurred by a specific concern of limited public awareness of the issue. Rather, “it’s a general concern that we’re doing all we can” to publicize the transition, he said.