Martin, Baker Face Worried Senators at DTV-Transition Oversight Hearing

There were some crossed fingers and worried looks as senators queried Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin and National Telecommunications and Information Administration acting head Meredith Atwell Baker.

During a digital-TV-transition oversight hearing Tuesday, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said he was troubled by surveys that showed that 74% of consumers still had major misconceptions about the transition to digital. "Too many Americans remain in the dark about what the transition means," Inouye warned, calling that 74% figure "very troubling."

Inouye was sufficiently concerned that he asked the FCC and NTIA to begin providing Congress with monthly status reports on the progress of the transition. Martin, for one, said he would be glad to comply. Martin also pointed out that the FCC was requiring broadcasters to file quarterly reports on their progress.

But Martin also pointed to other surveys showing that the number of people who knew about the transition was increasing -- from 51% to more than 75% in just three months, he said, citing an Association of Public Television Stations survey. But while pointing to that progress, he acknowledged that more needed to be done in terms of helping people to understand what they needed to do next. He also cited a host of initiatives the FCC has undertaken to get the word out.

The question was not put to him directly, but more than one senator suggested that the FCC needed to make the DTV transition its top priority, to the exclusion of getting distracted with other initiatives like the chairman's push for a la carte.

Ranking Republican Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), for one, said the FCC should focus on the transition rather than "less time-sensitive" issues like a la carte and network neutrality, which he called solutions looking for a problem.

Republican John Sununu of New Hampshire also took the opportunity to advise the chairman to focus on DTV, saying that he hoped issues like cable-price controls, must-carry, network neutrality and a la carte did not "take up too much of the commission's time."

Martin agreed that DTV was a top priority but added that the issue of how to reauction the D-block spectrum to provide a national emergency-communications network, a related issue, had to take precedence, as well.

Stevens was so concerned about reaching his rural constituents that he even asked Martin whether the FCC had considered issuing a warning similar to the emergency-broadcast system's "this is not a test" warnings. Martin said he didn't want people to think it was an actual emergency, but that broadcasters had agreed to run on-screen crawls -- as they do with emergency information -- alerting viewers to the switch.

On the issue of testing, when asked by one senator what the FCC's backup plan was if people didn't get the message that full-power analog was being turned off Feb. 17, Martin said the first priority was to make sure they did know, but that the only fallback it considered was the proposal by Democratic commissioner Michael Copps to create a test market to make the switch early and see what issues arose, although Martin did not say if any progress had been made along those lines.

Asked to give a letter grade to their agencies, as well as the broadcast, cable and retailer communities, neither Martin nor Baker took the bait. Both gave themselves "incompletes," saying that it was too early to tell. Both also praised their industry partners while saying that it was too early to grade them, either.

Martin did say that broadcasters will have to get an A since they are the crucial player in terms of education.

The tone of the hearing could best be described as cordial but concerned. McCaskill was particularly complementary, saying that NTIA staffers personally delivered pamphlets to her St. Louis office when she needed them and FCC staffers accompanied her staffers on visits around the state to get the message out.

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.