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No 'Frogs Falling From the Sky'

In a meeting that lasted into lunch hour on Thursday, the FCC Commissioners offered their opinions on the DTV transition, and in particular, the lessons learned from the Feb. 17 analog shutdown in many markets. While there were a lot of concerns, the participants' comments overall did not reflect any major problems with lack of coordination between broadcasters, the FCC, cable and satellite providers, nor any serious problems with the transition itself.

Commissioner Robert M. McDowell noted that some callers complained the FCC DTV line did not provide sufficient technical information. He explained that many of the people answering the phones had only a few days of limited training.

Commissioner Jonathan S Adelstein said the FCC is using a four-pronged approach to consumer education. This includes targeting outreach efforts to populations and regions most at risk, establishment of walk-in centers where consumers can learn how to install converter boxes or resolve other problems, identifying resources to provide in-home converter box installation for consumers with special needs, and finally, enhanced in-home service for consumers struggling with other technical issues. Participants heard success stories from people who had received in-home support. In the end, the viewers were happy and even thrilled after everything was working.

The participants spent much time discussing reception issues, focusing on the critical need to rescan converters and also about antenna requirements. Many viewers reported problems with configuration or rescanning converter boxes. With some units, when a station changes RF channels the viewer must manually delete the old entry or reset the DTV converter box back to factory defaults before it will find the new channel. There was no single solution to the antenna issues.

Kyle McSlarrow, President and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), discussed his organization's call center activity. After explaining the impact the changing deadlines had on the deployment of live agents, he noted that while only two percent of the stations that shut down on Feb. 17 were broadcasting in Spanish, 13 percent of the callers requested a Spanish-speaking agent. Fortunately the NCTA call center had extra agents to help, but he was concerned that on June 12, some 30 percent of the call center agents may need to speak Spanish.

David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) said that after considering the number of communities that made the transition and the number of converter box coupons, as compared to the number of calls received, he thought the transition program was moving in the right direction.

"The frogs aren't falling from the sky and certainly no anvils are falling from the sky," Donovan said in acknowledging the great amount of effort expended by the FCC staff to ensure a successful transition.

Donovan reported most of the calls received by television station engineers concerned reception or scanning issues.

Unfortunately, viewers didn't always recognize the difference between problems caused by scanning and those caused by lack of signal. Many of the complaints of "no signal" were likely caused by scanning issues.

Folks answering the phones have to know how each box operates--they are all different. True reception problems don't emerge until the second or third call back when scanning doesn't work. Sometimes changing the location of position or the antenna is enough.

Donovan cautioned against having consumers buy more antenna than they need, saying station engineers found www.antennaweb.org to be a good prediction tool. He said that making sure consumers are able to find and purchase appropriate antennas, indoor and outdoor, is important and recommended that retailers set up an indoor demonstration of outdoor antennas; however, he recognized the difficulty involved with this.

Donovan emphasized that it's important for stations to perform their transitions during daytime hours, noting that viewers with problems are more likely to obtain telephone or e-mail help during the day than in the early morning hours. He also said that education efforts should encourage viewers to test DTV reception now and not wait until June 12, adding that MSTV will work with the FCC staff to help develop materials to educate viewers on scanning and reception issues.

Christopher McLean, executive director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition also presented his thoughts on fallout from the transition.

"Antennas have proved to be a very interesting issue for retailers," McLean said, noting that early on, retailers thought viewers would be using existing analog antennas. However, after the Wilmington test shutdown, the antenna market became more robust than was expected.

Antenna configuration is highly dependent on micro-conditions, but because there are so many variable, even with excellent tools like Antennaweb.org retailers get a lot of returns.

Listening to the comments, it was clear the participants now understand the complexity of DTV reception, ranging from different antenna requirements to complicated DTV converter box setup procedures and are working together to help viewers make the DTV transition.

For more information on the meeting, visit the FCC's Open Commission Meeting – March 5, 2009 web page. Copies may be found there of the statements from FCC Acting Chairman Michael J. Copps and Commissioners Adelstein and McDowell. Statements and presentations from other participants are also available on the page as well as a full length audio and video replay of the meeting.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.