'Tis the season to CYA


Technically, it’s always the season to CYA in Washington, but the looming DTV transition is making some of the natives inside the Beltway very nervous. Ed Markey (D-MA) went viral today with news of a new Government Accountability Office report on the FCC/NTIA preparations for the DTV transition in which it "…found no comprehensive plan or strategy to measure progress or results," he said. The FCC fired right back with a 99-page report noting that it has "been planning for the DTV transition for more than 20 years."

GAO noted that the FCC has been moving the technical aspects of the transition along. It also says that "the FCC, NTIA and other private sector stakeholders have made progress in educating consumers about the DTV transition, but these efforts are mostly in the planning phase, and challenges remain." It noted limited resources for outreach available on the government side. GAO also found problems with the digital-to-analog down-converter coupon program, with uncertainty remaining as to retailer participation and actual availability of the boxes. "If retailers’ participation is limited or delayed, consumers might face difficulties redeeming their coupons…," possibly losing access to programming after 2/17/09.

The FCC took exception to the GAO report, firing back with a 99-page written response detailing 20 years of effort toward making the DTV transition a reality. The document detailed technical, policy and consumer outreach goals and the means of achieving them, and considered "other critical elements," such as stations with signals crossing the border into Mexico or Canada, and working with the NTIA to promote the down-converter box coupon program.

But at least one member of the FCC took exception with the FCC itself. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said, ""This GAO Report confirms what I’ve been saying for well over a year. The FCC does not have a strategic plan for the DTV transition. There is not even a plan to come up with a plan. Only the FCC appears to be in a state of denial over what the GAO is telling us. Rather than making excuses, we need to come up with solutions. We need to establish an interagency task force now, and we need to reinstate our internal FCC working group immediately."

RBR/TVBR observation: Our CYA jesting notwithstanding, it is appropriate to make a lot of noise about the DTV transition. However, it may be slightly premature to go into panic mode. The NAB and its membership has a vested interest in seeing this go off without a hitch, and it should be gearing up for a big consumer education push in the very near future. Meanwhile, it is unfair to rag too hard on the FCC for not doing more to publicize the transition. The GAO is working for Congress, the very same institution that gave the FCC a budget of next to nothing for consumer outreach. We regularly see memos from the Commission, but the average citizen does not. The government has essentially handed the ball off to broadcasters, asking them to run it up the middle for a touchdown. And they probably will. The government meanwhile must make sure that any regulatory loose ends are tied off well ahead of the deadline. And it wouldn’t hurt if Congress put a little more fiscal muscle behind the outreach effort.