Mini-transition hailed as a success


There were no frogs or anvils raining from the skies as the 2/17/09 mini-DTV transition unfolded, but nobody at the FCC’s en banc hearing on the topic was under any illusion that the rest of the transition will be a snap. In all, 417 stations transitioned to DTV-only that day, bringing the total to 637, and 11 markets made a complete transition, bringing that number to 13 along with Wilmington NC and Honolulu HI. It is strongly suspected that the key reason 2/17/09 went relatively smoothly was the fact that it involved only 15% of total TV households.

Perhaps the best news from the session came from NTIA’s Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, who confirmed that the coupon program is back in operation; that they are already going in the mail; that 2M can be processed in a week; and that the entire waiting list should be dispensed with in a two and a half weeks.

NAB’s David Rehr emphasized the continuing commitment of broadcasters to keep the public informed and well-educated. MSTV’s David Donovan said the most critical issues involve coverage and antennae, and stressed effective training for people manning call centers.

Here are key testimony summaries.

* Acting Chairman Michael Copps praises great job of trade press covering DTV transition, faults the general press for scant coverage. Only a mini-transition on 2/17/09 “Thank goodness, thank Congress, thank the President.” “There are no analogies, there are no real precedents” so the good thing about 2/17/09 is lessons to use going forward. Keys going ahead: 1. Put consumers first, particularly the most vulnerable; and 2. Tell the American people the truth – they don’t want sugar-coating or alarmist – just straight.

* Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein: Early movers shed light on next steps. Keys: educating consumers about antenna and coverage issues. Echoes Copps – better to inform people upfront about anticpated problems rather than surprising them on transition day.

* Commissioner Robert McDowell: “February 17th, a day that thankfully will not live in infamy.” 2/17 is not a fully reliable harbinger of things to come on 6/12. It did not end analog in any of the early markets, leaving either nightlight or full-service analog stations. Also, lacked large scale, large city transition – and these will be messy in some stations. Not enough time to make the transition flawless, no predicting what and where problems will be.

Panel 1:

* Dr. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, Associate Administrator, Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications, National Telecommunications and Information Administration: Begun to pass out coupons from the waiting list – enhanced capabilities allow 2M coupon releases per week, and should clear out backlog within two and a half weeks. Reduced turnaround from 21 to nine days. By 6/12/09 citizens should be able to resolve NTIA issues with one phone call. New rulemaking will allow non-redeemers to get a new coupon. Will also look at alternative to US Mail for coupon delivery. Has $90M to spend on consumer education, looking at ways to maximize bang for the buck. Now has better handle on demographics, looking for better ways to target hardcore OTAs.

* Eloise Gore, Associate Bureau Chief, Media Bureau, Federal Communications Commission: FCC moved extraordinarily quickly to handle tight deadlines to get ready for 2/17/09, made sure all markets had major network affiliate on air, with adequate coverage area. In the end, 417 stations ended that day, for 637 total with no analog. Stations have until 3/17/09 to inform FCC about final plans for transition. NPRM coming out next week with final details of station responsibilities.

* Cathy Seidel, Chief, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Federal Communications Commission: Had FCC staffers in 103 DMAs plus Puerto Rico during week of 2/17/09. Current mostly digital markets reach only 15% of US TV households, meaning there will still be a huge challenge on and need for outreach before 6/12/09. Setting up walk-in help centers, making available info, coupons, instructions on hooking up converter boxes, etc. Looking for and training organizations that can handle people needing in-home assistance. Will look at funneling stimulus cash to this purpose.

* Patrick Webre, Legal Advisor, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Federal Communications Commission: Sent specialists into markets with more than one major net affiliate transitioning. Important to be able to react rapidly to situations on the ground in various and unpredictable locations. Local TV stations are the key source of consumer info. Call-in shows and newspaper articles are also useful. Need in each community for in-home assistance providers. Must be prepared to deal with procrastinators on 6/12/09.

* Julius Knapp, Chief, Office of Engineering and Technology, Federal Communications Commission: DTV mapping tool has been useful for local authorities, consumers. Provides contour, and tower location is useful for aiming an antenna.

* Andrew Martin, Chief Information Officer, Federal Communications Commission: Handling calls is a matter of routing incoming calls properly. Still getting coupon questions. Reception/technical issues picked up on 2/18 & 2/19. Language: 8% Spanish, 90% English. That’ll change depending on DMA; not many heavily-Hispanic markets transitioned 2/17. There were 11 full market transitions, plus Wilmington NC and Honolulu HI – 13 DMAs being studied closely for lessons to use 6/12/09. Lessons learned: Takes a lot of resources, coordination to move calls nationwide through multiple platforms. A single front end would simplify that a great deal. Resources are always in high demand and short supply.

Panel 2:

* David Rehr, President and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters: 2/17 went well, viewer confusion and calls were relatively low, awareness across the nation is at 97% —and less than 1% of all viewers called for help. TV viewers have gotten the message – national awareness is at universal levels, and 82% of OTAs have taken action. $1.2B put into education so far by broadcasters. 241 organizations in DTV coalition. Challenges remain: rebranding the 6/12 date. New NAB spots are already out there. NAB is compiling list of leaders in each DMA, and distributing educational material on converter box scanning procedures. New round of spots on the way. Antenna issues: New round of spots will promote, FCC’s new tool. Stations are covering in newscasts and long-form programs. Loss of service due to contour changes is another problem – NAB is getting all stations losing 2% or more coverage to educate consumers. Stations need flexibility to change and message according to their own individual circumstances. Asks FCC not to duplicate industry efforts, and to funnel cash to grassroots organizations efficiently.

* Kyle McSlarrow, President and CEO, National Cable & Telecommunications Association: Great effort to coordinate broadcast and cable to maintain effective carriage. Must focus on 85% of households still to make transition. 3/17/09 will be key day, getting final transition dates for all TV stations. Also important to remember vast majority of Hispanic transition is still ahead.

* David Donovan, President, MSTV: We appear to be moving in the right direction. Engineers are handling complex calls: Most stations calls are reception or scanning issues; unfortunately, most consumers can’t differentiate between the two. All they know is they’re not getting a picture. It’s highly unlikely that a consumer wouldn’t receive ANY station, suggesting that scanning is the #1 issue. Scanning or manually inputting station usually solves the problem, but each box has a different scanning function, leading often to multiple and/or lengthy consumer phone calls. Delicate issue: Do NOT want to advise consumer to get antenna when they do not need one. is great in assisting consumers with antenna decisions. Antenna availability in a given local market can be an issue, particularly for outdoor antennae. Should have outdoor antenna examples at walk-in centers. And PLEASE: transition during the day, not at 2 or 3 in the morning. Going ahead, focus messaging on tech issues and urge consumers to test their equipment in advance. Make sure people fielding phone calls are properly educated. Work with retailers on antenna supply.

* Christopher A. McLean, Executive Director, Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition: on 2/17-18, retailers had very few customer queries, but some converter boxes were returned afterwards, even in the 11 shut-down DMAs. Adequate supplies of boxes were available 2/17. Generally, most retailers have stock on the shelves, new supplies on the way. 30% of boxes are sold without a coupon. Glad to see the waiting list about to be served. Boxes should be available in stores, online and by phone. Antennae is an interesting situation, and is proving to be a more robust market than anticipated. Rabbit ears (less than $10) are often all a consumer needs, high end smart antennae are excellent products. Antenna that works now may not after transition, but variables lead to high rate of return. Urges consumers to act now.

* Mark Lloyd, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund: Focusing on seven cities thanks to NTIA grant. Focusing on minorities, elderly, low income, disabled, foreign language groups. A lot of the work has been putting info into understandable language, both languages and non-techspeak. Things went relatively smoothly 2/17 but challenges with at-risk communities remain.

* Sandy Markwood, Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging: Has NTIA grant for outreach, one-on-one assistance for seniors, particularly the low-income, foreign language, rural and frail portions. Directly contacted over 6M seniors, and have 100K knowledgeable seniors providing direct assistance. Key is having people who can make in-home visits. Senior centers are being used for DTV education. One-on-one sessions can be time-consuming, many lack funds to buy equipment and procrastination is a problem.

* Gene Kimmelman, Vice President for Federal and International Affairs, Consumers Union: Done a tremendous job serving a relatively small portion of the nation, but potentially messy problems lie ahead. Government must do its job to get coupons out, and make sure converter boxes are available – that’s government’s most crucial job. Industry has done a great job. A lot of people on the ground and PSAs will be needed.