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Let’s avoid that digital TV ‘train wreck’

July 26th, 2007

The shutdown of analog television broadcasts in 2009 offers “high potential for a train wreck,” according to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). Is the digital TV transition a disaster in the making?

It’s still too early to tell. Alarm bells were rung at today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing, where an AARP official raised the prospect of senior citizens losing their television service and taking it out on Congress. That’s exactly what would happen, too, if we switched over tomorrow. Surveys continue to show low levels of awareness about what will happen on February 17, 2009, when over-the-air broadcasters will complete the change to digital TV. Personally, I’m not despairing—not yet.

The DTV promotional (or “consumer education”) campaign has yet to reach full speed. What’s holding it back, I think, is the DTV converter box coupon program. If you want a $40 coupon to help pay for a digital-to-analog converter for your old, antenna-equipped TV, you’ll have to wait until January 2008 to ask for it. Understandably, the late-July airwaves aren’t filled with “public service” announcements about DTV coupons (or commercials for snow blowers, for that matter).

I don’t blame broadcasters for that. It’s still too early. But FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps is right: “The first message consumers hear cannot be about how to get a converter box for a transition they’ve never heard of,” he said Tuesday. “We first need to explain to them why the transition is happening and how it benefits them.” That initial message needs to reach American viewers without delay.

If Americans aren’t sold on digital TV, it’s probably because broadcasters have done a pretty lackluster job of building demand for it.

For instance, one key benefit of digital TV that has escaped the awareness of the average viewer is the vastly expanded channel capacity. If stations made full use of their new “multicast” DTV channels, you could have five times as many local TV choices today as you did back in the pre-digital era. That hasn’t happened. If everyone could get 40 channels of engaging programming for free, DTV converter boxes would already be widely available in stores, and people would pay for them out of their own pockets rather than wait. The digital transition would sell itself.

HDTV, a more widely appreciated benefit of going digital, has fared better. (HD programming, however, takes away from multicasting capacity. But despite more shows going hi-def, many programs are still only available in standard definition.) HD has sold millions of new TVs, and many HDTV early adopters, especially, are enthusiastic about watching free HD programming with an antenna.

But since 85 percent of America has abandoned the antenna, the core message of the DTV transition has narrow appeal. Over-the-air TV’s market share is comparable to Chrysler’s slice of the auto market. Imagine spending a year or more announcing a recall campaign that only affects people who drive Dodges or Jeeps. If you have a Honda in your garage, or in this case a dish on your roof, you’ll tune out. That’s the problem we’re facing. Most people don’t care about the DTV switchover because most people don’t care about off-air TV.

Still, broadcasters don’t want to lose 15 percent of their audience. They seem to be putting real muscle behind planning for their DTV transition campaign, and viewers will get the message if stations give it enough air time.

The FCC and NTIA have also shown commitment to pulling this off, and I give credit to the members of Congress who are making their expectations known to federal agencies.

A smooth DTV transition is by no means a done deal. The converter boxes need to reach stores, and DTV coupons need to reach consumers. They will then need to be able to successfully install the device (and, in some cases, a better antenna) and receive acceptable reception. Some viewers will need hand-holding, and actual in-home help, to make the shift to digital. I’m not sure that America is fully prepared for this, but we’ll find out in a few months.

The government will spend up to $1.5 billion on the DTV converter box coupon program, but just a few million for consumer information campaigns. If more federal dollars are needed to promote DTV, the FCC should impose a surcharge on broadcast licensing fees to pay for it. The preferable option, I think, is to make broadcasters accountable for getting the word out. Every television station that uses the public airwaves should be required to publicize the digital TV transition, a matter currently under consideration at the FCC.

The DTV transition isn’t off track, as far as I can see. But much work remains to be done if we’re to avoid that train wreck.

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DIGITAL TV TRANSITION: Get ready for 2009

DTV Converter Boxes: Should you get one for your old TV?

DTV Coupons: How to get your $40-off government coupon.

DTV Converter Box alternatives: You don’t have to wait.