Deborah D. McAdams /
06.22.2005 12:00AM
Lawmakers Look at 2008
Estimates of OTA reliance remain nebulous

WASHINGTON

As lawmakers consider ending analog television in 2008, the biggest question in the debate remains--who cares?

No one knows just how many people will lose TV service when analog transmitters are powered down. Estimates range from 13 percent-and-shrinking to the combined populations of Texas, Michigan, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee and Wyoming.

Lyle Banks, CEO of Banks Broadcasting, said most people don't understand the implications of the analog shutdown.

"I don't think people have one clue whatsoever," he said. "The majority of people don't know that at some point, the analog service as they know it will go away and they'll have to make significant expenditures."

Broadcasters have been criticized as a group for not doing enough to educate the public about digital television and the impending analog shutdown. Banks said his stations--KNIN-TV in Boise, Idaho and KWCV-TV in Wichita, Kan.--are taking a "proactive" approach by encouraging people "to go digital." However, the KNIN "Ask the Engineer" Web site suggests that Boise viewers have a low interest in being educated about television in general:

Q: My picture is black.

A: Don't take this the wrong way. The answer to this one most of the time is that your TV is unplugged.

Cable penetration in the Boise market is one of the lowest in the nation at 40 percent, Banks said.

"You've got a lot of people who are going to be disenfranchised," he said.

Bray Cary, president and CEO of West Virginia Media Holdings in Charleston, W.V., said there is "zero awareness" that the government intends to shut off over-the-air analog television. WVMH consists of four stations in West Virginia.

"It's the same issue facing the industry since the inception of the concept," Cary said. "There's going to be a point in time where they're going to turn off a bunch of television sets. It is the congressional delegation that has to have the nerve to tell their constituents they're not going to get television. The issue is, can they find a way through that? In rural and poor areas, that's going to be a bigger challenge."

While constituents remain largely uninformed, debate ensues on a draft bill in the House calling for analog TV signals to end Dec. 31, 2008. At a telecom subcommittee hearing on the bill in late May, it was evident that disagreement on set-top subsidies and broadcast flag enforcement would have to be settled before a floor vote.

The one thing most lawmakers agreed on was establishing a deadline, and while House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton said 2008 was "probably frozen," his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), hadn't signed off on it.

The House draft also addressed consumer education, digital channel selection, digital must-carry and a tuner requirement. (See "Digital Television Transition Act of 2005") The deadline legislation is expected to be attached to a budget bill scheduled for completion by September.

COUNT VON COUNT

Over the course of the last year, members of Congress have heard divergent tallies for over-the-air TV reliance.

The Consumer Electronics Association, representing the gizmo makers who want to fill the analog broadcast spectrum with subscription services, says only 13 percent of U.S. households rely exclusively on free OTA television.

That number will diminish as more people buy sets with digital tuners, the CEA contends. There are roughly 3.2 million digital tuner devices on the market now; that number will be around 86 million by 2008, according to CEA estimates. (CEA numbers reflect shipments to dealers--not consumer adoption.)

The CEA came up with 13 percent via the typical method of subtracting cable and DBS subscriber numbers from the total number of TV households in the country, allowing for a 3 percent overlap.

The folks at KCSM in San Mateo, Calif., did similar math before embarking on their own analog shutdown in 2004. Cable and DBS penetration in the San Francisco market--KCSM's coverage area--was 89 percent, so OTA reliance was pegged around 11 percent. It was more. When KCSM powered down the analog transmitter on May 24, 2004, the station lost 38 percent of its audience.

"We lost the lease on the analog transmitter site. We had to do something. Shutting down the transmitter was the way to go," said Michelle Muller, director of technology at KCSM, a public station licensed to the San Mateo County Community College District.

The station didn't rely solely on pay subscriber numbers. Members were polled, and everyone taking telecourses was asked how they received the channel. It was not over the air, Muller said.

"So when we found out those two primary constituencies didn't really rely on us for over the air, we thought it wouldn't have a huge impact," she said.

KCSM proceeded to tell viewers. For two months, about five times a day, the station rotated four, 60-second spots telling people what was going to happen. Members were informed in the monthly guide, information was posted on the KCSM Web site, and a smattering of newspaper articles appeared. Then on May 15, the station stopped all programming and ran a billboard saying KCSM was going off the air on Channel 60, its analog assignment. It listed a phone number for people to find out how to get the digital channel.

"That was the week the floodgates opened," Muller said. "It was really intense for about a month."

The phones at KCSM rang constantly. Everyone at the station had to be trained how to deal with the calls. People were sent to consumer electronics stores for digital receivers. The only problem was, there weren't any to be had.

"We thought we'd done research on set-top boxes that were available at retailers in the Bay Area," Muller said. "We didn't have any official correspondence with retailers, but we had our engineering people go talk to the salespeople."

Muller said one big-box retailer called the station and said "stop sending people to us because we don't have anything."

One year later, the station has not fully recovered its audience, although another PBS station that invoked must-carry in the San Francisco market may also be a contributing factor, Muller said. The station nonetheless continues to hear from viewers who are still looking for the station.

SUBSIDY STICKING POINT

The DTV draft bill making its way around Congress includes a viewer education clause, but if KSCM is any indication, a significant number of people simply won't be educated, and many will be inconsolable. Many Democrats, such as Reps. Elliot Engel from New York and Rich Boucher of Virginia, are convinced that without a set-top converter subsidy program, analog shutdown will be a political disaster. Yet the more lawmakers discuss a set-top subsidy program, the more it becomes clear that it would be wildly complicated.

Congress would have to nail down who's eligible, how to find those people, what agency administers the program, how much the administrative cost would be and how to pay for all of it, said Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office.

At the subcommittee hearing, Goldstein submitted a report that looked at existing subsidy programs to evaluate administrative costs. In one case, the price for mailing vouchers to approximately 1.5 million households was estimated to be about $552,000.

Current estimates of households receiving television exclusively over the air range from 13 million to 21 million. Based on the GAO example, administrative costs for sending vouchers to OTA households would range from $4.8 million to $7.7 million.

The GAO also looked at tracking the OTA contingent using cable and satellite subscriber lists, but concluded it would be a daunting task. Cable companies told the GAO that under current law, the government would need a court order to obtain subscriber lists. Cable officials also told the GAO that subscriber lists constantly change, and that churn in some systems is as high as 10 percent.

After taking such complications into account, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) wondered if there would be any money left to buy set-top converters.


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