Two Years And Counting...

I remember the Fifth Report and Order back in the mid-1990s. Those were good times, laughing with my fellow journalists over the FCC’s aggressive (read: completely unrealistic) transition timeline.

But this time, it looks like the federal government really means it. Today, more than 90 percent of DTV stations are on the air. DTV set sales are surging. A handful of you have already made the local news HD upgrade, with more to follow. And it probably doesn’t hurt that legislators want to get their collective hands on the $10 billion or more in fees that’ll fill the federal coffers once they auction that tantalizing NTSC spectrum to the highest bidder.

The slightly less aggressive (read: oh look, we can actually manufacture DTV transmitters now) deadline is February 17, 2009. That’s right, in just two short years, analog television broadcasting in the United States will end.

What won’t be ending anytime soon is confusion in the consumer marketplace. Much of the general public has no idea that in two years their analog tuners will no longer provide access to television stations. For most homes, this really won’t be a major problem. After all, the majority of U.S. households have cable or satellite service, so it’ll be business as usual.

Estimates vary, but it’s probably a safe bet that at least 15 million households in this country rely on over-the-air as their only means of receiving television signals. Granted, there are also have a handful of homes that have secondary sets without a cable or satellite connection, but the real issue here is making sure that OTA families realize what’s coming.

The federal government is already making plans to help OTA households with the transition through set-top box subsidies, probably through a voucher program. Whether you agree with the legislation or not (I’m not a fan), it’s going to happen.

Personally, I wonder if those vouchers will come with instructions. Or a technician. I can already hear the sound bites from disgruntled viewers complaining about how their favorite shows were “stolen” and they can’t hook up the “complicated” boxes. I truly expect someone to blame the whole DTV transition on global warming at some point.

According to a February 2005 estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, it could cost anywhere from $460 million to about $2 billion to subsidize the cost of STBs for these households. Those numbers are already two years old and were far from exact, so who knows how much will really be spent--and whether the distribution model will be based on economic need.

Last month, the NAB announced its plans to create a national campaign to increase consumer awareness of the DTV transition. The task force will work under Jonathan Collegio, NAB vice president, digital television transition. So you’re going to get some help from the national level, but meanwhile, what is your station doing locally to get the word out?

Has your staff been trained to answer technical questions accurately? A “cheat sheet” for your employees could go a long way toward avoiding confusion and providing a consistent message for the viewers who call. And if you don’t have a PSA strategy in place, now is really the time to plan.

Why not take it a step further--rather than rely on the government’s plan to subsidize low-income homes with vouchers for set-top boxes at a reduced price, are you planning to provide some sort of STB relief? Wouldn’t a commercially sponsored STB distribution program in your market be a great way to separate you from the competition? Talk about serving the public interest. The clock is ticking...

Mark J. Pescatore is the host of the Television Broadcast Two-Minute Drill and the interim editor of Television Broadcast. Contact him at