FCC to oversee DTV soft test

Nielsen claims that 3.3 million American homes are still unprepared for the DTV transition. However, the FCC is giving the last minute stragglers one more chance to avoid the loss of analog television when the final switch is pulled on June 12.

The commission has asked stations to run a “soft test” of the digital switch three times on Thursday, May 21. During that day, the nation’s broadcasters will interrupt their analog streams with an announcement giving a final warning to those who still haven’t grappled with the pending transition.

The “end is near,” said FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein at last week’s FCC meeting. There are still 927 full power television stations — some of the nation’s largest — that will switch off analog broadcasting in June.

Nielsen’s estimate, about 2.9 percent of all homes, is down from the 3.5 million, or 3.1 percent, unready only three weeks ago. The latest number was released exactly 30 days from the transition. The least prepared group is the 18-34 demographic — making up 5.4 percent. Seniors and Asians are now far more prepared for the transition than they were earlier.

As for broadcast markets, Albuquerque-Santa Fe, NM, remains the most unprepared among Nielsen’s 56 metered markets. In that market, 8.47 percent of households are completely unready for the transition. Texas markets Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin take the No. 2 and 3 spots with 6.67 percent and 5.31 percent, respectively.

The FCC’s three remaining commissioners know that a small group will never prepare for the shutdown. “Some of the 3.5 million unprepared households still refuse to believe that the June 12 transition date will hold,” Adelstein said. “So today, I want to make clear to the American people, broadcasters and everyone involved that the end is near and certain.”

The FCC asked broadcasters to conduct five-minute tests at 7:25 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 6:25 p.m. However, the NAB said the stations have an “understanding” with the FCC that some stations may need flexibility regarding the time of day and length of the test.

Univision, for example, is exceeding the FCC’s requirements with its 148 owned and affiliated stations. The network did two tests on May 16 and will do others on May 18, May 21, June 2 and June 4.

The FCC is hoping the May 21 tests will create an “intermediate tidal wave,” resulting in a wake-up call to many viewers and a lot of phone calls to assistance lines. It is hoped this will reduce the stress on the system on June 12. The commission will have 4000 operators standing by at 1-888-CALL-FCC to provide online assistance through three eight-hour shifts.

The FCC is sending 180 employees to 49 markets that it has identified as least prepared for the transition. It has also awarded contracts to a dozen community organizations to set up 400 walk-in centers and 12,000 DTV help clinics to show people how to set up those converter boxes. The commission said it going to schools, barbecues and other community events to tell viewers of the transition.

Free, in-home technical assistance from firemen and other volunteers is also on the way. The FCC hopes to assist with more than 200,000 installations between now and the conclusion of the transition.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) told Congress last week that it has cleared the list of 4.2 million people waiting for converter box discount coupons that it accumulated in January after the fund ran out of cash. The Obama stimulus program added another $650 million to replenish the coffers.

NTIA associate administrator Bernadette McGuire-Rivera told the FCC members that she believed the fund has enough money for the completion of the transition.

Acting FCC chairman Michael Copps said the extension of the transition date had averted a “consumer meltdown,” but said “there will still be some disruption” on June 21. Some viewers will not deal with the transition until after it happens, Copps predicted, while others will lose coverage because stations will shift their signal ranges with the digital technology.