DTV Converters to be Available by Feb. 17

The DTV message got an assist Thursday from the top.

No, Tom Petty didn’t suddenly start talking about converter boxes. But Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez did, joining top DTV warriors at a Best Buy in Washington, D.C., to try to get more information about the conversion out of the trade press and onto the nightly news.

Hosted by Best Buy Senior Vice President Michael Vitelli, Gutierrez wandered into the DTV issue along with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, NAB President and CEO David K. Rehr, National Cable and Telecommunications Association President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow, and Consumer Electronics Association Vice President Jason Oxman, who were probably happy to get a cabinet member talking about DTV in front of a cluster of news cameras.

“The transition to digital television is an unprecedented effort, and we are working hard to ensure all Americans are aware of the transition and take necessary action before February 2009,” Gutierrez said. He also talked up the benefit to public safety in the spectrum freed up by the transition.

Vitelli said Best Buy will have coupon-eligible converters available in its 900-plus stores nationwide starting Feb. 17—right when the first applicants for converter box coupons should start getting them in the mail, and exactly one year to the day that full-power analog TV broadcasts cease.

Best Buy will also have a converter box hotline, 877-BBY-DTV9, to answer questions and process purchases using the coupons.

Rehr said NAB was launching an outreach blitz of speaking engagements next week by station representatives in all 50 states to raise awareness and mark the one-year countdown.

Aiming their message at the general press, the officials and industry reps played down some concerns about the program. Gutierrez said he was confident the supply of $40 coupons wouldn’t run out, and none of them spoke from the podium about the concerns of low-power, Class A and translator stations, most of which will continue to broadcast in analog after February 2009.

Also unmentioned was the issue of reception. Even as Rehr spoke about the superior picture and other benefits of digital TV, a set right behind him, with a box tuned to local public broadcaster WHUT, displayed images that froze, stuttered and pixelated.