Senate Commerce Leaders Back DTV Task Force

Echoing concerns expressed earlier in the day

by House Democrats

, Senate Commerce Committee chairman

Daniel Inouye

(D-Hawaii) said the country may find itself in the midst of a "digital disaster" if the government didn't take various steps to spur the digital-TV transition and help viewers navigate it.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday, Inouye, seconded by committee vice chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), called for the creation of a DTV task force along the lines proposed by one of the hearing;s witnesses, Federal Communications Commission member Jonathan Adelstein.

Although Inouye called for greater coordination of efforts from the industry, the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, he also suggested that a national message only goes so far, and that what works in Honolulu may not work in Houston, adding that there needed to be the equivalent of "blcok captains" in every DMA to help viewers figure out what they will need to do to get a picture after February 2009, when the plug will be pulled on analog.

Inouye also said there should be ways to monitor and measure progress. For his part, FCC chairman Kevin Martin has proposed requiring stakeholders to report their progress to the FCC every 90 days, as well as mandate various education efforts including public-service announcements, cable and satellite bill-stuffers and consumer-electronics education and training.

Asked whether he thought there should be a DTV task force to coordinate the transition, John Kneuer, who heads the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is overseeing the DTV-to-analog converter-box program, said he thought coordination was important, but it was already happening without a mandate for an overarching controlling authority.

National Association of Broadcasters president David Rehr committed to going as local as it takes to get the message out, saying that the NAB might even charter planes with banners to spread the word if need be. It already has a pair of DTV Trekkers -- trucks that will travel the land spreading the gospel of great over-the-air pictures.

One thing that might not be working in Texas is the broadcaster business model, at least along the border. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from that state, said the she had heard from some local broadcasters worried about Mexican border stations that will still be in analog after the switch. She said American stations could be at a "severe disadvantage" if Mexican stations braodcasting in analog capture viewers who don't make the switch.

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.