Successful DTV transition is ‘nothing less than the future of our business,' Wharton says

For broadcasters, HD and DTV are inextricably woven together — a salt and pepper relationship that will season the screens of a sizable number of Americans for the foreseeable future.

With less than two years to go, however, until the deadline for the DTV transition, less than 1 to 3 percent of the people in this country know that analog transmission will be gone in February 2009.

A few days before the opening of NAB2007, HD Technology Update spoke with Dennis Wharton, the association's executive VP of media relations, about the DTV transition, the public's ignorance of the coming change and how the association and TV broadcasters intend to remedy the situation so when February 2009 rolls around, no TV household is left behind.

HD Technology Update: With about 20 months before the shutoff of analog transmission, what are the primary steps TV broadcasters should be taking to educate their viewers about the need for a new DTV or a set-top converter to continue using their existing sets?

Dennis Wharton: What the NAB is going to be doing, working closely with all of our TV stations across the nation between now and February 2009, is undertake a massive educational campaign of the American public.

The unfortunate reality is that right now, very few people understand that there is going to be this transition and that analog television will cease to exist less than two years from now. So what we are doing is putting together a game plan as we speak. We are enlisting coalition partners that include groups like the AARP, minority groups that might be affected by this transition more than the rest of the population. We will be sending folks to local community organizations to educate people on this transition. I'm speaking about Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, synagogues, churches and local community organizations.

What we will do is come up with a DTV speakers bureau in cities and towns all over America, so that we will have one-on-one ambassadors for digital television in communities all across the country to address this issue and tell people this transition is coming. If you don't have a digital television, you might consider buying one. If you can't afford a digital television, then there is a converter box program that is run by the government where you can exchange this coupon for a converter box so you can continue to have access to local TV signals.

The biggest educational effort will come through the use of our own airwaves in terms of public service announcements. By the end of this year, or early next year, we'll have on the air PSAs that will probably be on — we hope — every TV station across the country. We'll have 30-second commercials, essentially, telling people that the transition is coming. If you are a broadcast-only household with an analog TV set, you need to take action to make sure you don't lose access to TV signals.

So, this is a multifaceted campaign that will involve one of the biggest efforts NAB has ever undertaken working in concert with our local TV station partners.

HDTU: I read the testimony of Jim Yager before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee. I was surprised to see that only 1 to 3 percent of the people in the United States realize that the transition will happen in February 2009. That's really low isn't it?

DW: Yes, it is. But we are right at the beginning. And it behooves NAB, and all of our TV station members and all the partners in our coalition, to get very aggressive, and we intend to do just that in educating these folks who could be affected.

As broadcasters, it represents nothing less than the future of our business, so we are taking it dead seriously about educating the folks who need the information.

There are a couple of ways you can maintain access to local television if you are one of these folks who are broadcast only with an analog TV. You can go out and get a new digital TV, you can subscribe to cable or satellite or you can get involved with the converter box program from the NTIA.

NAB is going to be educating people on how to do that.

Right now, there are about 70 million TV sets that are at risk. Our hope is that at the end of this transition, that there is not one TV set or household in America that is disenfranchised through a lack of education on the part of NAB, local broadcasters and our coalition partners.

HDTU: Is there any precedent to your knowledge for a government dictum impacting the private property of so many people and the education needed so they can continue to use their property?

DW: No. I don't think there is any precedent for this type of educational effort. That's why we are taking it so seriously. We have one chance to get it right, and we intend to get it right.

HDTU: Will the transition happen on schedule or will it be postponed?

DW: We are operating under the assumption that the February 2009 date will stick. We have to believe that that's the case because we would be doing a disservice to our members and consumers if we didn't act accordingly. We think it is going to stick. We are going to assume that that date is not going to change.

HDTU: When do you expect the first converter boxes to become available?

DW: LG Electronics has testified that the first of those boxes will be available at the beginning of next year. There are prototypes out there that work well.

HDTU: Based on the NAB/MSTV specs?

DW: Correct, we put together some specs that we suggested to manufacturers, and our understanding is they work well.

HDTU: NAB has said that the NTIA coupon program is a step in the right direction, but would like to see more. Could you be a little more specific about what the association would like to see?

DW: NTIA has a budget that goes up to $1.5 billion for these coupons. There are nearly 70 million households at risk right now. If you do the math and every one of the households were to use the coupon to get the $40 for the D-to-A box, it wouldn't accommodate all of those people.

We are not sure how many people will turn in the coupon, but if the money is insufficient to cover that many TV sets, our position is that no TV set gets disenfranchised from this process. That's why we said it was a step in the right direction. We do appreciate that NTIA did make some adjustments to their original proposal.

Originally, they made a comment that if you were in a cable or satellite-wired household and you had a second or third broadcast-only TV set, you would not qualify for the coupon program. They adjusted that. The first $1 billion of the $1.5 set aside can be used by not only broadcast-exclusive households, but also those connected to cable or satellite with broadcast sets. That was a big give on the part of NTIA, and we appreciate that. The only issue left in our view is whether the $1.5 billion total is sufficient to cover potentially all of the folks wanting to exchange the coupons for the digital to analog converter boxes.

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