House Eyes DTV Converter Box, Reception Concerns

DTV-to-analog converter box availability and reception issues dominated the second panel of a House DTV transition oversight hearing Thursday.

That is after Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) assured concerned panelists and other legislators that the DTV hard date was not moving again. Representatives of the retail and consumer electronics industries tried to assuage Boucher's concerns that the converter boxes would run out, citing current figures showing that could be the case if redemption rates and new requests continue at the same level.

Gary Severson from Wal-Mart Stores said he did not anticipate there would be a shortage, saying his company analyzed demand weekly at the store level, and was working with supppliers that were in it for the long haul and had been responsive to demand.

Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, who was strongly opposed to moving the date in the first place, said that suppliera had been able to respond "nimbly" to demand. But he also said it would be impossible to predict exactly how many boxes would be needed.

Shapiro said that if supply became an issue, the government should consider allowing the money to be used not just for converter boxes approved by NTIA, but for higher-end boxes, "stripped down" DTVs or cable or satellite service.

Boucher was troubled by Shapiro's estimate that 4.2 boxes would be needed between now and June 12, saying his

calculation, according to current active coupons, put that figure at at least 5.5 million. Shapiro said that Boucher had

more current numbers, but that for CEA to get better information, it might need help from Congress to get around antitrust issues.

Boucher said he would be willing to help out with a letter seeking data from manufacturers, with input from CEA.

Shapiro continued to maintain that the transition was going well, calling it an "incredibly successful" industry

partnership, calling the consumer experience "overwhelmingly positive," and putting in his plug for not changing the date. Boucher repeated for what he said might have been the 10th time (one of them in an intervew yesterday that there "shall be no further postponement of the DTV transition." He added that Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) had been equally demonstrative on the subject.

On the issue of reception gaps due to coverage area differences between digital and analog, another key for Boucher, whose district is both rural and mountainous, Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public Television, said that he needed government help to reach hard-to-reach places.

Morrill warned that public broadcasing funding cuts threatened the money he needed to complete the digital transition, which now included trying to fill in gaps with transmitters per a new FCC initiative to help stations use translators and distributed transmission systems to boost DTV coverage.

In Idaho, he said, some coverage will be lost because of "those darn mountains." But, he said, "because of the short

time frame and desperate economic conditions, it is extremely diffulut to finance and deploy the transmitters."

He asked the committee to give stations two years to build out those systems, and to make funding available, and without requiring the station to put up matching funds.

Given that there will be some reception problems no matter what viewers do, Morrow argued that the government also needed to focus on in-home assistance, particularly for elderly, as well as full disclosure by stations of areas where signals will be lost. The FCC has already said that stations are required to start informing viewers in affected areas.

Morrow also used the forum to make a pitch for more funding in general, pointing out that PBS provides important kid educational programming and news, saying it would need more funds "to weather the economic typhoon."

Robert Prather, president of Gray Television, said he had been surprised by the number of calls he had received about reception issues, specifically antenna problems. He said one of his stations, WHSV Harrisonburg, Va., had initially pulled the plug on analog but then switched it on four days later after the GM concluded there was too much signal loss due to mountains.

He said the station was working on converting some translators to digital to help reach those areas. He said they

weren't even technically in his market, but wanted to serve all his viewers. Prather said that from the outset, Gray's

approach had been to help one viewer at at time and that his stations (22 of them made the switch Feb. 17) had

answered all 20,000 calls they had recieved during the switch-over, spending from a minute to 45 minutes per caller,

with some staffers even making house calls to resolve the problems.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.