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Broadcasters Learn Lessons From Test Shutoffs

In the first week of December, broadcasters launched their biggest round of “soft” analog shutoffs to date, running market-wide DTV messages over the analog signals in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, and Hartford, which led the way with a 30-minute mega-test.

Broadcasters are analyzing the data from those tests and from the viewer calls that resulted. As they spot the remaining holes in the nationwide DTV-education campaign, they’re also learning that the tests are a great way to reach viewers right where they are—watching TV—but that some people are still not getting the message.

“Our position is that tests are good and more tests are better,” said John Lawson, executive vice president for Policy and Strategic Initiatives at ION Media Networks.

Lawson said that this summer, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein asked ION to coordinate tests in large markets in a systematic way. ION then teamed with NBU-Universal, Telemundo and the Association of Public Television Stations, as “anchor tenants” to launch the campaigns and reach out to other broadcasters in the markets.

Lawson reported plenty of cooperation among broadcasters as well as from cable and satellite providers, who have been spurred by tests to ensure that they are receiving and passing through the local stations’ DTV signals, not the analog signals doomed for shutoff in February.

On the consumer side, broadcasters were concerned that the FCC call center was not adequately staffed to handle a surge of calls during a test in major markets, Lawson said. So, with Verizon, broadcasters created an automated front-end system so that broadcasters would get automated response options with the option of a live voice at the FCC call center. The automated system reduced busy signals for callers and is providing data about the types of problems viewers face,.

Among the other lessons: Broadcasters found that the longer the test, the more calls are generated. Also, the data shows that the vast majority of wholly unprepared houses (those now with TV but no digital receiver) did not call in during the tests, indicating that there may be large numbers of viewers still not getting the DTV message or choosing to ignore it.

Lawson predicted markets will conduct repeat tests, increasing in duration, including nationwide tests.

“These tests are very valuable in many ways, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said.