FCC dissects DTV


Outreach, information and technical questions related to the DTV transition was the topic of the FCC’s February Open Meeting. In general, it was an information-sharing session, and although most participants were grateful for extra time provided by delay of the deadline from 2/17/09 until 6/12/09, there were many calls to put the time to good use, not to use it as an opportunity for a breather. Acting Chairman Michael Copps had one news item to share, noting that several key station groups have promised to maintain digital and analog program streams all the way until 6/12, including CBS, Fox, NBC/Telemundo, ABC, Hearst-Argyle and Gannett.

RBR/TVBR observation: The off-hand comments about newly-opened lines of communication at the FCC continue to flow from all quarters. That is a good thing, because in its lack of wisdom, Congress put no one person in charge of the transition, and a major effort at coordination will be required to pull it off with a minimum of pain. Today’s meeting seemed to be a strong step in that direction.

Commissioner comments:

* Acting Chairman Michael Copps: Welcomes new deadline date. Consumer focus must be central, and FCC must help stations switch early if they so desire. CBS, Fox, NBC/Telemundo, ABC, Hearst-Argyle, Gannett have committed to side-by-side analog/digital broadcast through 6/12/09.

Jonathan Adelstein: Says he is, for now, the Acting Interim Senior Commissioner. Copps leadership is a real turnaround, a chance for everybody to get together out in the open to tackle this problem. Applauds broadcasters for taking this on in the midst of the worst economic conditions they’ve faced in some time. Some staffers have received too little management input, while others have been micromanaged.

* McDowell: Compliments Copps, says it’s a pity today’s topic is so lacking in interest. Everybody involved must use this gift of time wisely. Has been concerned since last September that people knew something was up, but weren’t quite sure what. Spotty preparedness has been evident. Transition will be messy regardless of when it happens. Delay may highlight new problems – will some consumers be even more confused? Big problem, for example, with the FCC’s own call center. Recent FCC collaboration with NAB, NCTA on call centers should help. Notes financial challenges to broadcasters, such as choosing between running two stations v. staff cuts. In questioning, want each market to have a private contact and an FCC contact who has “ownership” of each market, who coordinates each transition. Found out there is a super capacity of 2.5M calls per hour with all call centers going at once, based on a 4.5 minute life-operator average call.

Panel 1:  DTV Consumer Outreach

* Cathy Seidel, Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, FCC: Have now reached all 210 DMAs, actively looking for ways to coordinate with others involved in outreach. Focusing on matching in-home help providers to call centers. Will be monitoring OTA levels, readiness levels, support levels, contour change levels, and anticipated station switchover dates to assess manpower and resource allocations. Trying to anticipate potential problems and put resources into place ahead of time to deal with them.

* Tony Wilhelm, Consumer Education Director, NTIA: Focusing on coupons generally and outreach specifically. New NTIA head Anna Gomez welcomes delay, asks for funds to deal with waiting list. Funding is in stimulus package that is through House and pending in Senate. Partnering with public interest groups to “connect the unconnected and serve the underserved.”
* Mark Lloyd, VP, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights: Getting info to vulnerable Americans for over a year. Working with local community based centers. Still getting questions about the coupon program. Need a central data base of those assisting those who need help. Need resource to know which stations are shutting off when and which will lose viewers. And this must not become another unfunded burden on strapped local communities.
* Sandy Markwood, CEO, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging: Older people having trouble understanding the problem, many have mobility problems and cannot get converter box even if they do understand, and many aren’t online. Need to have boots on the ground to make sure elderly have necessary adjunct equipment to get hooked up. Need to support local groups with big hearts and limited funds that want to help.
Panel 2:  DTV Call Centers:
* Andrew Martin, Chief Information Officer, Federal Communications Commission: Expanded/improved in-house call center –can handle 1K concurrent calls; more robust outsource solution around the deadline day; all call handlers will have common information available. Now using delay to better coordinate this problem.

* Sam Howe, Executive Vice President, Time Warner Cable: 14K reps in customer care centers. Will put its small elite team of experts into the effort in private/public partnership.

* David Rehr, President and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters: Stations invited to webcast to discuss next DTV steps. NAB putting out nightlight video in English and Spanish to head off questions. New phone service kicked off in January – interactive on a toll-free number. Sorts callers by viewing equipment and then takes them through appropriate transition steps. Working with NCTA, FCC on toll-free hotline with live operators.

* Dennis Lyle, President, National Alliance of State Broadcasters Assns: Working closely with NAB, MSTV. Getting word out about every conceivable DTV problem. Various types of call centers are being set up, statewide, market-based, even station-specific. TV stations are the original boots on the ground. The more pressure national centers can take on generic questions, the better job locals will be able to do with local-specific snowflake-type problems.

Panel 3: Reception Issues and Analog Nightlight

* David Donovan, President, MSTV: Make sure consumers learn true channels being used at local level; get information out on antenna issues.

* Joel Kelsey, Policy Analyst, Consumers Union: Have lots of info on DTV equipment and troubleshooting for consumers. Must get consumers stuck on NTIA waiting list off of it. Wants to see broadcasters get out better maps of digital dead zones.

* Michael Petricone, Senior Vice President Government Affairs, CEA: Nobody knows how many people actually need a converter box, but CEA has made good-faith attempt to assess the need. Manufacturers and retailers are doing what they can to speed up the supply chain.