With the nation's first experiment in the DTV transition now history with the Sept. 8 switch in the Wilmington, N.C., market (DMA no. 134), the FCC, NAB and local politicians had high praise for the fact that few TV households called to plead ignorance of the highly publicized transition. And according to a survey released on Sept. 15 by the CEA, overall national consumer awareness of the DTV transition has grown to a purported 86 percent.
Jonathan Collegio, NAB vice president of digital television, said "by any measure, the overriding fact that fewer than 30 people in the entire Wilmington DMA were unaware of the switch or transition date demonstrates that the consumer education campaign was a smashing success."
But they may be missing the point since "awareness" was not a big problem in Wilmington, even though hundreds of calls were logged from consumers with other types of problems. While nearly everyone in Wilmington knew what was coming following months of heavy publicity targeted to this one lone market, between 1,600 and 1,800 homes (depending on which set of numbers are used) did call to complain.
Some admitted to being procrastinators who had not yet hooked up their converter boxes, or knew they needed a box but didn't get one yet—or discovered that their analog-era antennas (both indoor and roof) no longer pulled in all the broadcast signals they were accustomed to seeing. (Some in the industry have been warning about a possible antenna problem, box or no box, while others had nixed the notion.)
Approximately 15,000 homes in the Wilmington DMA are totally antenna-dependent, according to Nielsen, and if many (and probably most) of the 1,600 or so calls (using the lower number) came primarily from these households, that means more than 10 percent of all directly affected homes had a problem. (Even if it was half that percentage, 5 percent is hardly insignificant when it's extrapolated out to the millions of OTA-only homes on a national basis for next February.)
"Granted, some viewers temporarily lost reception because they didn't hook up their converter boxes correctly or read the instructions," Collegio said. "And some people also had difficulty receiving [WECT-TV]. These issues could have been averted had more viewers upgraded early—and getting folks to upgrade and test their equipment ahead of time will definitely be a focus of TV stations as we approach February 2009."
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, in a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin following the Sept. 8 Wilmington switch, had nine suggestions to heed in the time remaining before the national switch, which is five months from today — Feb. 17, 2009:
- Conduct additional field testing;
- Dedicate a special FCC Team to the needs of at-risk communities;
- Ramp up the FCC Call Center;
- Prepare comprehensive DTV contingency plans;
- Create an online DTV Consumer Forum;
- Educate consumers on DTV trouble-shooting, including antenna issues and the need to "re-scan" converter boxes and sets;
- Ensure that broadcasters meet their construction deadlines;
- Encourage the rapid deployment of small, battery-powered DTV sets;
- Find a way to broadcast an analog message to consumers following the transition.
That last point, incidentally, was taken in Wilmington, where the affected stations did not turn off their analog signals, per se, but used them to show a text message telling viewers where to call if they had questions or problems.
For more on Wilmington's aftermath, see this item on the revamped TV Technology Web site.