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TV Transition Tension Rising

Capitol Hill Democrats, nervous about the Bush administration’s implementation of the digital-television transition, are making moves to minimize consumer confusion immediately after analog broadcasting shuts down in February.

Last week, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) introduced a bill (HR 7013) that would postpone the recovery of old analog TV spectrum from Feb. 18, 2009, to March 3, 2009. During the two-week period, over-the-air viewers who failed to make the digital transition would continue to have access to emergency weather and safety alerts on analog TV sets.

It’s the first House bill that would delay, however slightly, the federal government’s legally mandated recovery of all analog TV spectrum on Feb. 17, 2009.

House Democrats, as part of a stopgap budget bill, last Wednesday decided to include $20 million more for the Federal Communications Commission’s DTV consumer education programs, and another $20 million to help the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration fund the postage of converter-box coupons in January, when such funds might dry up.

For a variety of reasons, congressional Democrats fear a flood of telephone calls after Feb. 17, 2009, when the law requires all full-power TV stations to turn off their analog signals and rely exclusively on digital signals, which in some markets have been available for nearly a decade.

“I am deeply concerned that the benefits of the transition may be overshadowed by poor implementation,” Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said at the start of a hearing on DTV last Tuesday that included testimony by FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

In an early September test, five commercial TV stations in Wilmington, N.C., made the digital transition. About 1.2% of Wilmington households — 2,272 viewers — contacted the FCC’s local call center to discuss a range of difficulties after losing analog signals.

“On a national level, this may translate to millions of calls. Unless more is done, February 17, and 18, and 19, will be very long days indeed,” Inouye said.

Pure awareness of the DTV transition isn’t the main issue for broadcast-only consumers whose analog TVs won’t work in an all-digital environment without a converter box. Martin testified that only 100 Wilmington callers said they knew nothing about the Sept. 8 DTV transition there in the wake of a five-month public relations blitz.

Instead, consumer-education problems were more complex. Consumers needed to be aware that they should conduct a channel scan after connecting their digital-to-analog converter boxes; and some consumers needed to adjust rooftop antennas. In about 30 TV markets, consumers are going to lose access to TV stations whose digital signals do not travel as far as their analog signals.

National Association of Broadcasters president David Rehr said last Monday that his staff was preparing TV spots “to encourage people to re-scan or scan [their converter boxes] as we make the national transition on Feb. 17.”

The NTIA has for months been coming under pressure from House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-Mass.) to extend the life of each $40 converter box coupon beyond 90 days — again, to minimize consumer frustration. NTIA has money to fund 33.5 million coupons.

But the NTIA has resisted, pointing to the 90-day expiration mandated by law.

“It’s not a bad idea to get people to act within 90 days. From our point of view, we do not expect a change,” NTIA converter-box program director Anita Wallgren said last Monday at a forum here sponsored by the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV).

Although the NTIA has mailed 25.9 million coupons, just 10.4 million have been redeemed. The agency expects that based on the current redemption rate, the $1.5 billion program will return about $300 million to the U.S. Treasury.

Last Wednesday, the House voted to provide NTIA with $20 million in additional administrative funds in case the $160 million already allocated isn’t sufficient.

In some markets, TV stations have been conducting “soft” transition tests, interrupting regular programming for one minute to provide DTV transition-awareness messages.

William Check, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s senior vice president of science and technology, told the MSTV gathering that soft test messages have provided “incorrect information” to cable subscribers. That’s because an analog TV set with a cable connection would not need a converter box.

Capps’s bill would give the FCC latitude to require at least one analog TV station per market to stay on the air for an additional two weeks. In some cases, the FCC could allow one powerful analog TV station to serve two adjacent markets.

“I think we’ve got to have some kind of lifeline, whether it’s one channel or a couple of channels,” said W. Ardell Hill, Media General Broadcast Group’s senior vice president of broadcast operations.

The stations in Wilmington are staying on the air in analog with only DTV information updates until Sept. 30.

The FCC’s program, to be drafted no later than Jan. 15, 2009, would ensure that the analog station transmitted emergency information in both English and Spanish.

“It’s an intriguing idea. Our TV board will be discussing it in the very near future,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

FCC Democrat Michael Copps sent a letter to Martin on Sept. 12 urging the agency to find a way for the broadcast of analog messages to consumers after the transition.