Martin: FCC Won’t Dictate Broadcaster’s DTV Message

Broadcasters could be forced to run PSAs about the DTV transition with a timing and frequency dictated by the FCC, according to an order in front of the commission.

But the government would have little control over what those messages actually say. “The commission plays a general role in making sure that the information is accurate and informative,” FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said, referring to the content of PSAs, bill inserts and other communications that the order may call for. “I think everyone is generally trying to make sure they’re educating consumers accurately about it.”

Martin pointed to a survey released Wednesday by Consumers Union that found major misconceptions about the transition across large sectors of viewers. CU said its survey, conducted in December, found 74 percent of those who said they were aware of the transition had “serious misconceptions” of its impact. It also said 36 percent of Americans living in TV households were entirely unaware of the government-mandated transition to digital broadcasting slated for February 2009.

Chris Murray, Consumers Union senior counsel, said in a conference call with reporters that public-private partnerships are great, but that people shouldn’t be surprised if the consumer electronics companies want to sell TVs and the cable companies want to sell cable.

“Our main recommendation here is that we can’t continue to rely exclusively on industry to educate consumers,” he said. “At some point, the government should cut through this noise.”

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, said Wednesday that three commissioners are already onboard an order that would require broadcasters to run at least four 30-second ads a day about the transition, increasing to up to 12 a day as the analog shutdown approaches.

NAB has proposed its own DTV outreach plan, including PSAs, and asked that the FCC allow broadcasters to follow that voluntary approach instead of mandates in an FCC order. Broadcasters and others have also raised First Amendment concerns over any speech forced by the government. NAB had no comment on the possible order.

The CU survey found different misconceptions among the public. Some 57 percent of those aware of the transition think every television will need a new converter box to work. Nearly a quarter of the people aware of the transition think all analog television will become worthless after the transition.

And of those with at least one over-the-air TV, nearly two-thirds (61 percent) incorrectly believe they are not affected, do not know that they are affected or are completely unaware of the transition, CU said.

Martin said the survey shows the message is getting out about DTV, but that more needs to be done to let viewers know what steps they need to take.

NAB countered CU’s survey announcement with one of its own, saying that DTV “awareness” has reached 79 percent of the population.

That survey, conducted in January, also said 83 percent of people in over-the-air households are aware of the transition. Overall, consumer awareness has more than doubled since January 2007, NAB said.