DTV Deadline: The Middle Way

1/22/2009 7:02:14 PM

Politicians are arguing over keeping the Feb. 17 DTV deadline or moving it to June 12, when indeed they should be figuring out how to make it Feb. 17 through June 12. Stations ready to shut down can do so. Those that need a bit more time can wait. How tough is that?

Details are not a strong point of Congressional lawmaking. Take the DTV converter-box coupon program, for example. It was Congress that decided coupons would expire 90 days after date of issue. The reason had to do with fraud prevention. That is correct. Politicians do not trust us. Consequently, there’s more than $560 million tied up in dead plastic coupons across the country. The program is broke, and more than 2.5 million people are now on a coupon waiting list.

The very same folks who brought us this fine coupon imbroglio are now determining the Zero Hour of the DTV transition. Many people familiar with the whole idea have wondered long and hard why the entire country must transition at the same time. It makes no sense for the same reason snowshoes make no sense in San Diego. Each of the nation’s 210 TV markets is distinctly different. Los Angeles is a sprawling area of single-family homes covered by mountain-top transmitters. New York is concentrated clutch of high-rises covered by transmissions from a skyscraper. Dawson County, Nebraska is a sparsely populated flatland served by translators.

Several stations have already transitioned, demonstrating that a market-to-market shutdown over a four-month period is feasible. Hawaiian stations went all-digital with minimal chaos, though adjacent market coordination is clearly not an issue there. Wilmington, N.C. stations shut down months ago. WTVX-TV in West Palm Beach, Fla., ended analog transmissions Dec. 1. KBTX-TV in College Station, Texas shut down this week.

Not every station has the resources to maintain dual operations. An extra few thousand in power bills can mean someone’s job. A single job in this economy is worth defending. Shifting the DTV deadline to avoid political fall-out is sheer narcissism.

And there will be fall-out, whether the deadline is Feb. 17, June 12, or at all points in between. You can’t please all the people and so forth. There will be people who lose TV reception no matter what, which is unfortunate. The DTV transition didn’t have to occur, but that die was cast long before now.

By Nielsen’s latest estimate, around 6.5 million households would lose TV reception if all stations transitioned today. A month ago, the figure was 7.8 million, meaning 1.3 million households have prepared in that period. Factoring in a last-minute rush, it’s safe to say that around 4 million households would lose TV if the Feb. 17 deadline were held.

The foundered converter-coupon program may be a factor, but it’s not entirely to blame, and neither is a shortage of converter boxes. Radio Shacks around the country have converters in stock.

Steve at the Shack in Fond du Lac, Wis., said his store is selling several converters a day. Vincent in Sapulpa, Okla., said the franchise there is selling four or five converters a day, and about half are purchased with coupons. Similar traffic was reported at Radio Shacks in Gardenia, Calif.; Sydney, Nebr.; and the Asheville, N.C., market, where Nielsen pegs the rate of unreadiness at about 6.7 percent. Matt, who worked at one of four Radio Shacks in the area, said his store stocked up for a last-minute rush.

“We just got a big shipment… about 20 or so,” he said. We usually have about five on hand.”

Creating a four-month shutdown window gives communities greater control over how to handle this final phase of the DTV transition. Perhaps it’s time for those affected by the transition to have a say in it.