By Gary McNair, Vice President & General Manager, WECT-TV – Wilmington (Raycom, NBC)
I’ll admit it. I was naive. I thought this digital conversion would be just like Y2K – loaded with angst, and then a peaceful ending. I was wrong. We were not allowed to enjoy the fruits of our labor when we crossed the finish line on September 8th – at least not at this station.
With the help of the NAB, the FCC, and teamwork among the stations, we did a wonderful job educating the public about the digital transition. Only a handful admitted to being surprised by it all. But many in and near the Wilmington market had problems. And most of those problems were a result of WECT not replicating signal. We took advantage of this transition opportunity to move to a better transmission site. And this made our transmission point closer for most viewers in our market, and farther away for others. But it also introduced another variable into the already complicated education process.
I don’t claim to be an expert. But I’m willing to offer some suggestions and share what I’ve learned by being one of the first to stop broadcasting in analog.
* Educate yourself. Experience the product. Become a consumer of free over-the-air digital TV. It is different in more ways than one. I contend the digital signal is finicky and knowing the “ins and outs” of what you are dealing with is very valuable. I prepared a map with mileage circles so I could have some kind of guidance for antenna type. Almost every reception problem is different and the variables seem endless – geography, TV type, converter box, antennas, house type, viewer intelligence, etc. I talked with one viewer that had a converter box hooked into the digital antenna connection of her new digital television.
* Prepare a station or market specific, easy to understand, “digital viewing guide” – complete with maps and pictures. Make it available at television retailers, public events, on your website or through the mail.
* Offer a digital help line for questions or problems. You can post common questions and answers on your web site and also make this a segment in your newscast.
* Be prepared – you will insult your core viewers with the digital messages. These are the people responsible for the bulk of your ratings and you really don’t want to offend them or chase them off. They get it and they are, or will be, prepared. But they will not have a lot of tolerance for why you have to run so many announcements about the digital transition. Try blaming it on the government.
* Work with your fellow broadcasters if they are willing. You can share the communications workload by assigning a point-person for outside entities like other media, retailers, public safety entities, grass roots organizations, town & county governments, cable and satellite providers.
* Communicate with your cable and satellite providers. They want to hear from you and work with you on getting through this. This is also necessary for confirming when you can safely “test” viewers without risking confusion from cable or satellite subscribers.
* Communicate with television retailers. They are talking with customers every day. The better information they have, the better they can help people buy the right antenna and talk about reception issues, including re-scanning to get all the channels.
* Educate your staff – especially your news and sales staffs who are constantly out representing the station. Everyone will get questions from friends, relatives and neighbors. They’ll expect station people to be experts. Some have suggested a digital quiz for employees. You might even have some fun with it.
* If you are not replicating your coverage area, be prepared for a lot of calls. Add temps to field or return calls. They do not need to be engineers. But they do need be able to patiently “walk” a caller through all the troubleshooting involved with connecting and operating a converter box and “peaking” an antenna. This is a difficult process for some people and patience is key.
* Don’t let viewers procrastinate. Because they will. It is human nature. Once your cable and satellite operators are no longer using your analog signal, start annoying the over-the-air analog viewers. Do lots of soft tests or run big crawls. Do anything you can to get them off their butts and move them to the digital signal early.
I’m sure there are other suggestions I’ve left out. And I’m sure you’ll have other issues I haven’t addressed – like lip sync, pixilation and audio digitizing. But you will survive. And you’ll be able to call yourself a digital pioneer as we work together to perfect this technology for years to come.