Powerful Senator Sees Potential DTV-Transition 'Crisis'

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was the only senator on the panel as the committee began its digital-TV-oversight hearing Tuesday, appearing to serve as a metaphor for his assertion that the congressionally mandated plug-pull on full-power analog TV has not received sufficient attention or resources.

But Inouye pushed on, pointing out that the others were in meetings and conferences on the financial crisis, which threatens to pull the plug on the U.S. economy.

Members of Congress are beginning to receive calls now about the transition, he said. Inouye urged the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to keep focused on the transition and not have their attention "diverted" by contentious proceedings.

As the administration winds down, he added, both the NTIA and the FCC must "remain vigilant” so that the next administration does not inherit a "communications crisis. We have too many crises facing us at the moment," he said.

With the new administration inheriting the transition only 29 days in, he added, there is potential to cause "serious" disruption. A new president -- either Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- “should not have to deal with a failed transition," he warned.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin said the commission had learned some things from its early analog shutoff in Wilmington, N.C., which would help it going forward, including taking steps to fix issues with changing TV-station coverage areas and putting more emphasis on helping viewers to set up the boxes, scan for the new channels and understand what antenna issues they may have.

But he agreed with Inouye that Congress had not provided sufficient funding for transition education, saying that the FCC needed at least $20 million more. Inouye said he would try to make sure the FCC gets the extra money.

NTIA acting head Meredith Attwell Baker outlined progress in sending out DTV-to-analog converter-box coupons and its request for more money to administer the program given the expected "surge" in coupon requests as the deadline approaches.

A representative of the Government Accountability Office also reprised its findings from last week's House hearing that the government may not have done enough to prevent some folks from losing their TV picture Feb. 17, 2009, when the national DTV switch occurs, or to plan for the coupon surge.

House members asked the NTIA for a detailed plan for dealing with that surge, and Baker said she would be happy to supply that plan to the Senate, as well. Essentially, the Senate was getting the same DTV update from most of the same witnesses that appeared before the House Commerce Committee at its DTV-oversight hearing.

One exception was Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who was not at the House hearing. He called the Wilmington test a success, praised the FCC staff's efforts in Wilmington, hailed retailers for having plenty of boxes on hand and helpful salespeople and thanked broadcasters for their education effort.

But he also said other communities needed to be ready to respond to seniors who had trouble hooking up their converter boxes or scanning channels, and to help those who he said could not afford the boxes even with the DTV coupons. That would appear to be a very small population, however, since they would have to be able to afford a TV, but not the $20 or less it costs for a box with a $40 subsidy.

While he called the overall effort "outstanding," Saffo said, "We still had residents who went dark."

Inouye was eventually joined by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and a couple of others. Dorgan asked if anyone had hooked up a converter box. Baker said she had done many of them, and it was pretty simple.

Saffo said the antennas sometimes had to be adjusted after the box was connected, and more of that might have to be done in more mountainous areas.

Martin said he shared Dorgan's nervousness about what was going to happen in February. Dorgan registered his concern about the digital cliff effect. Martin said he would supply Dorgan with information about what areas would be affected by the digital cliff -- viewers either get a digital signal or they don't, and some who had been receiving weak analog signals won't get digital signals from those stations.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) -- who pointed out that her state's analog-only viewership is about 20%, compared with Wilmington's 7% -- said she was concerned about the digital cliff, as well, asking Martin if he had ever been on a roof in Minnesota trying to upgrade an antenna. Martin said no. She asked how Martin would fix the problem. Martin said viewers should make the switch early to find out whether they need a new antenna.

As for the shrinking of digital coverage areas, Martin called that a more significant problem. He estimated that about 15% of markets will have at least one broadcaster with a smaller contour. The FCC is looking into filling those coverage gaps with repeater antennas. Broadcasters would have to pay extra for those repeaters, Martin conceded.

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.