Sanjay Talwani /
08.22.2007 12:00 AM
Spreading The Word
WASHINGTON
Virginia Massey, who watches WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., doesn’t know exactly how she’ll get television after the digital transition. “Please send me the information about the DTV,” she wrote the station. “I have rabbit ears to my TV [sic]. I will need my TV to test my eyes every morning first thing. Plus, I don’t want to miss the weather report.”

With broadcasters hoping to minimize the number of viewers like Massey caught without a signal when analog television broadcasts end, the National Association of Broadcasters is building a stack of tools to help its members contact everyone about DTV—and maybe prevent angry calls to stations on the morning of Feb. 18, 2009, the day after the analog shutoff.

In a July 24 letter to the Senate Commerce Committee, NAB outlined the tactics, from text crawls to PSAs to speakers, community meetings and direct mail, for informing the hard-to-reach about the analog shut-off, DTV converter boxes and the federal program to issue tens of millions of $40 coupons for the boxes.

No one’s requiring broadcasters to do any such things, and the federal government is contributing just $5 million to publicize the coupon program. Broadcasters say they’re being creative and will likely commit tens of millions of dollars in efforts and airtime to make sure everyone who wants a signal 18 months from now can get one.

But there are still improvements to be made in the transition’s stretch run and the government needs to take a more central role, say some politicians and advocacy organizations. They’re calling on industry, the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is running the coupon program, to do more. On July 31, the FCC responded to the pressure and called for comments on some fresh DTV education rules.

‘NUMBER ONE ROLE’

“Government needs to take the number one role in coordinating and in getting everybody to make sure that this happens, and I still don’t see that,” said Gloria Tristani, a former FCC commissioner who now serves on the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee. “Let’s face it—the government didn’t adequately fund getting the word out. So if they’re not going to adequately do that, which apparently they’re not going to do, then they need to make sure that the industry gets the word out.”

The FCC offers up the possibility, raised by key telecom Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), of industry mandates in its current rulemaking. But the Consumer Electronics Association and NAB, without explicitly saying they oppose such a requirement, say that they and their members are already doing their part.

“Broadcasters clearly understand the importance of letting their viewers know what they need to do to continue receiving broadcast signals,” said Jonathan Collegio, NAB vice president for the DTV transition. “And local stations know how to communicate with their viewers better than any institution in America, including the NAB. So we’re confident that stations will use a variety of different methods, including PSAs, to make sure that the message gets to everyone.”

NAB is briefing reporters across the nation on the transition to get the story in the news, and is extending its marketing efforts to public transportation hubs and retailers. It’s producing 30- and 60-second PSAs, text crawls, video news packages, B-roll, graphics, a 25-minute program, and foreign language spots.

FORGING AHEAD

Some broadcasters aren’t waiting. WRAL, ever the DTV innovator, has forged ahead with its own PSAs to reach people like Ms. Massey.

“That group of people is difficult to reach,” said WRAL Director of Programming John Harris, noting that Massey’s letter was in longhand, not e-mail. “We’re basically telling them they need to take action.”

WRAL plans more PSAs as details of the converter box coupon program are revealed and will also check out NAB’s efforts. Plus, Harris promises the PSAs will run when plenty of people are watching, not just during the graveyard shift.

“Jim Goodmon and company have a commitment to this sort of thing,” Harris said of the president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, the station’s owner.

Steve Minium, senior vice president of news and marketing for Clear Channel Television (which is set to sell its 39 or so stations), has a countdown clock on his computer desktop ticking off the 500-plus days remaining till the analog shutoff. He predicts that the various stations will cover the shutoff as a major consumer news story in any case. Meanwhile, the stations already have PSAs about the DTV transition in general, to be ramped up in time for the holidays, and will employ some of the methods the NAB has advocated, such as sending speakers out to community groups, and more.

“Everybody’s being a bit creative,” he said.

CREATIVE WAYS

Yet all the efforts may fail to reach some people, particularly the poor, elderly, non-English speaking, and rural or remote.

AARP has testified before Congress and been otherwise active on the issue, noting that seniors have a set of difficulties ranging from general discomfort with technology to the physical difficulty of reaching the back of a large TV set, not to mention the fear that seniors will misunderstand the coupon program or be vulnerable to rip-offs.

AARP federal affairs officer Debra Berlyn is also looking at creative ways to reach her members, such as text crawls that get bigger as the shutoff approaches.

Berlyn and others also note that the $5 million allotted for education about the coupon program is coming from the proceeds of the upcoming 700 MHz auction. With the possibility of more money than previously expected coming in with that auction, Congress should consider using some of those funds to boost consumer education. The government, after all, is gaining billions from the DTV transition and the auction, while over-the-air, non-HDTV viewers are losing a service and gaining nothing, the thinking goes.

Nancy Zirkin, vice president and director of public policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights agrees.

“It should not be up to broadcasters alone to get the word out,” she said. “NAB has a responsibility and they know it, and they’re acting accordingly, but more funding is needed.”

Without a more detailed plan of the program ahead, plus coordination and accountability, Zirkin is afraid the efforts of her group and many others will fall short. And she feels that message, at least, is getting through.

“Members of Congress are getting it, because it’s going to be dumped on their doorstep,” she said.


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