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LCCR Cites Several DTV-Transition Issues

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Monday applauded digital-TV-education efforts by broadcasters and the government but said problems remain -- including a lack of federal leadership, viewer confusion, upselling and a host of others -- that could keep "many" viewers, including minorities and the elderly and disabled, in the dark.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters reported Monday that DTV awareness in the African-American community was on the rise.

In a report released on the eve of Digital Television Day on Capitol Hill Tuesday -- where legislators will get a short course on the transition from participating industries, activists and government officials -- the LCCR pointed to what it said are "serious problems" with the transition and education efforts, which it said Congress needs to help solve with a more coordinated and better-funded effort.

They included:

• Absence of clear federal leadership and a comprehensive transition plan;

• Lack of viewer awareness;

• Viewer and retailer confusion;

• TV converter-box-coupon-program problems and complexities;

• Excessive and unanticipated costs and burdens to viewers to make the transition;

• Loss of community television stations;

• Difficulties in procuring and attaching converter boxes;

• Reports of unnecessary retailer upselling;

• Difficulties for seniors and people with disabilities in accessing captioning and any available video description on digital converter, cable, or satellite boxes and finding converter boxes that support video description; and

• No rapid-response capability to deal with problems on and after Feb. 17, 2009.

Their suggested remedies included Y2K-like planning, which echoed the suggestion of FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who was a part of the Clinton administration's planning team for Y2K; investing more government money in outreach, including home visits and more converter boxes per household; making more analog pass-through boxes available; and requiring converter boxes to be automatically upgradable via software.

"This is not the time for members of Congress to be 'penny-wise and pound-foolish,'" the report said, "for they will ultimately suffer the wrath of consumers and voters if the digital transition is a failure."

The LCCR is particularly concerned about minorities, the poor and the disabled, who are disproportionately over-the-air viewers who will be most affected by the switch to digital.

The group made it clear on a conference call with reporters Monday that the report was not meant to be a criticism of efforts to date, but instead a wake-up call that Congress needs to put more money and coordination into the effort to make sure that DTV at-risk populations have the help they need, including government-funded hands-on instruction in shipping and settting up converter boxes and extending the deadline for DTV-to-analog converter box coupons.

Mark Lloyd. LCCR VP and a former TV producer, took aim at recent statements by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez likening the DTV-to-analog converter box program, which Commerce is in charge of, to cereal coupon programs from his days as a Kellogg executive. "People don't rely on cereal to warn them about hurricanes," said Lloyd, reiterating concerns about coupons expiring before the low-priced converter boxes hit store shelves.

On the same day the report talked about lack of awareness, the NAB’s initiative put out a new poll that said 85% of African-American households were aware of the transition. That was up 12% from a similar poll conducted just six months ago.

"From the beginning, broadcasters have paid special attention to educating African Americans and other minority populations that would be most affected by the transition," NAB vice president for the DTV transition Jonathan Collegio said in releasing the poll. “These results show that our dedicated efforts are gaining traction months ahead of the transition.”

According to the NAB, more than one-quarter of over-the-air households (27.5%) are African-American.

Those efforts have included teaming up with the National Black Church Initiative to distribute DTV-transition information in church bulletins and talk about it from the pulpit.

But while the percentage of respondents who could accurately identify Feb. 17, 2009, as the transition date had also increased to 32% from 12% in the previous survey, that still left more than two-thirds who didn't know the date.

The NAB poll was a telephone survey of 3,643 African Americans conducted March 29-May 13.

The LCCR report was produced with an assist from the United Church of Christ and Jonathan Rintels, who heads the Center for Creative Voices in the Media, the Hollywood-backed group whose advisers include Steven Bochco, Tom Fontana and Warren Beatty.