Updating the DTV To-Do List

WASHINGTON Like the marathoner who can see the end of the race, broadcasters find themselves in the final throes of a mad dash toward the DTV finish line.

Yet come Feb.17, 2009, that race will be far from over. There are dozens of looming problems and unresolved issues—both fairly minor and urgently overwhelming—that remain unanswered. And with three months to go, broadcasters must keep one eye on their own individual to-do lists, while simultaneously staying focused on big and small pitfalls that await in the weeks and months ahead.

Remain a tad wary of the successes from early transitioning markets. The forward- thinking city of Wilmington, N.C., made great strides when it leapt into digital in early September. The good news: Successes were plentiful, and it gave the rest of the nation a blueprint for their own transitions. The bad news: Most markets won't have all the luxuries afforded Wilmington. As the first market to transition, the focus and care put on Wilmington was intense. Great strides were made in marketing the transition to the population, from well-placed billboards to the distribution of more than 85,000 publications. FCC staff was all over the market to educate consumers. Funding went into hundreds of outreach events. As a result, more than 97 percent of residents were aware that the transition was imminent. And when the analog signal went off, stations were well poised to handle the influx of calls. When formulating your market's transition policies, keep this in mind: Wilmington was more than prepared.

Consider the impact of the economy. Some analysts believe that the struggling economy may be a boon to broadcasting, giving local broadcasters the opportunity to wrangle back direct access to their audience through over-the-air HD broadcasts.

"With the bulk of the country on cable, and the next sizable portion after that watching via satellite, it has long been believed that over-the-air broadcasting was drying up on the vine," said James McQuivey, an analyst for Forrester Research. "But we are currently seeing a slight push toward canceling cable now that so much content is available online."

McQuivey sees a scenario where over-the-air broadcasts coupled with an HD DVR and an Ethernet jack for streaming online content are the order of the day. "This would be a boon to over-the-air broadcasters who would suddenly have a direct relationship with their viewers again," he said. "Any future interactivity they wanted to add to their channels they would be in control of, rather than watching the cable companies develop and retain all the influence over the interactive channel. It's a small opportunity for now, but it's more evidence that digital is stirring the pot."

The downside: the growing number of new over-the-air broadcasters may be unaware of the converter box mandate. "The current estimates of people being disconnected—particularly in areas hit hard by the [economic] depression—are underestimated," said Rob Enderle, analyst with Enderle Group. "The depression is likely going to have a significant impact on readiness on the customer side."

Be aware of lingering converter box issues. According to one analyst, one looming issue is the limited availability of converter boxes. "The biggest problem right now is that the converter boxes are not widely distributed and that the majority of people who are currently using an antenna to get TV simply aren't ready to receive digital, and will likely be cut off unless something changes," Enderle said. The dearth of converter boxes with analog pass-through continues to vex the low power TV industry, which fears that too many of its viewers will be unable to access their signals after full-power broadcasters have gone all-digital.

Who are you still not reaching? While it's hard for those in the industry to fathom that some Americans are fairly oblivious of the transition to digital, a random survey of a group of seemingly well-educated adults elucidated the following: "You have to buy cable to get digital television," and "I'm not really going to do anything about it." Determine now how you can reach hard-to find groups like seniors and low-income families, whether that's through contacting grassroots groups or local churches. The more fieldwork done now will translate into fewer angry calls in February.

Worry about the weather. One has to wonder what havoc the weather will wreak on the transition. If you're in an outage-prone area, consider stepping up knowledge about battery-operated systems, such as DTV converter box battery packs designed to allow converter boxes to work during power outages. "More field measurements have to be done determining weather issues, or there will be a lot of surprises," said Richard Doherty, president of The Envisioneering Group in Seaford, NY.

Keep an eye on those cross-border signals. There are a handful of cities that have more than just coupons and converter box issues to deal with. The cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Detroit, Vancouver, Seattle as well as entire areas like Southern California, Southern New Mexico and large swaths of Texas, must also keep tabs on the analog signals that will continue to creep over from Canada and Mexico. Stations must determine how viewers in some of those markets will be impacted when analog switches off.

"You'll have very high-powered [analog] transmitters still sending out signals that will very-effectively radiate into these now-all-digital cities," Doherty said. This is expected to be a particular challenge in Southern California, Doherty said, "where you have lower-income families that don't have cable and don't have satellite, and will begin to pick up stations on their still-analog TV antennas that start with an X instead of a K."

What does this mean in terms of a U.S. station losing its audience? How will local stations—many already struggling with advertising issues—handle the loss of a splintered target advertising audience? Stations also need a plan for dealing with cross-border analog interference issues. "High-powered analog signals may also cause difficulties to those getting DTV reception," Doherty said.

"The DTV Border Fix Act" which would allow stations along the U.S. Mexican border to continue broadcasting in analog after next February has been passed by the Senate but is currently being held up in the House.

Address unresolved power issues. As the transition gets underway, broadcasters should consider issues that may crop up as former stations operating on a UHF platform begin broadcasting on a VHF channel at lower power. "UHF to VHF will affect many consumers with older, non-rotatable antennas," Doherty said. Stations need to address potential interference problems, "including adjacent channel interference, especially as power levels shift," he said. "Interference has never been plotted en masse."

Watch those dead spots. Stations must also address the problem of open spots in regard to transmission power. "Almost all regions have been updating transmitter power but given the vast amount of space being covered, they do need to be concerned about dead spots," said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "In spacious regions and some border areas, there most likely will be coverage issues at the cut-off date."

Implement more soft tests. Much information was gained from the Wilmington tests, but "that test was like riding a bike where all the training wheels touched down," said Doherty. "It was an easy test." Broadcasters need to ensure that their market is ready for the February transition by implementing soft tests to highlight the market's weaknesses. Analysts recommend communicating with other stations in an effort to get the entire market on board for several middle-of-the-night or short burst soft tests in the weeks ahead.

And, for public education purposes, consider performing that soft test in the middle of the day when more viewers are watching and will be aware of the change.

Take comfort in strong HD set sales, but anticipate the downside. Despite the predictions of falling flat panel prices, analysts don't agree on exactly how the economy will impact HD set sales.

"The outlook for growth is still very positive, but it is critical that the industry continue to focus on refinement," said Paul Gagnon, a research director for the market forecast firm DisplaySearch. But keep in mind that the economic crunch may also prohibit others from upgrading their sets to HD, ushering in a much larger group of consumers needing converter boxes than anticipated.

"The industry may see a sizable upswing in converter box sales… which in a down economy will most likely be more then the government had predicted when they forecasted original demand," Gagnon said.

So the race continues. If a successful transition depends, as FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has said, on "minimizing the burdens placed on consumers and maximizing their ability to benefit from it," the industry still has a ways to go.

Susan Ashworth

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.