As the date nears for analog broadcast television in the United States to end and the all-digital system to commence on Feb. 17, 2009, stations, companies and systems around the country have been taking on the challenge of educating the public, spreading the word and instructing the communities they serve on the how and why of making the transition.
TelevisionWeek has reviewed the various efforts and has selected WIS-TV in Columbia, S.C., to receive the Digital Transition Award as the station doing the best job of preparing for the changeover.
“It’s a great honor and we’re very pleased that we’ve been picked, but we had a lot of help,” said Barry Ahrendt, director of marketing and programming for the station. WIS, which is part of the 40-station Raycom Media group, got the word from corporate to formulate a plan early last year.
“They expressed interest in getting ahead of the game, so the planning process really began in February and the marketing directors started working on it,” Mr. Ahrendt said. “The power of a group is that you have a lot of minds working together.”
The campaign included on-air spots starting in June. In more than half of the DMA counties WIS serves, one out of five homes receive only over-the-air signals. They had to learn what to do to prepare for the transition. In December, WIS anchors appeared in TV informational spots explaining the transition; the following month, a phone number was provided in addition to the Web site showing how to apply for set-top box converter discount coupons.
“The biggest challenge has been making sure that people understood who needed to take action and who didn’t, and for those who needed to take action, what they needed to do,” said Mr. Ahrendt. “The people who are probably the hardest to reach tend to be the rural, the elderly, the lower socioeconomic groups. We knew we needed to start early and get the message out in as many different ways as we possibly could.”
WIS also began a DTV Speakers Bureau, with appearances by station personnel at local civic and community groups. For those who have personal computers, WIS put the digital transition message on the Web in June. “All the Raycom stations collaborated on a Web page with our Big Switch logo. We’ve all put the common content on there. We also had a Spanish translation done for the markets where there’s a significant Hispanic population. We have links to where you can order the coupons. We have some videos up there and local stations can add their own content. And of course this is all sponsorable. A lot of stations have been able to sell an advertisement/information package to local advertisers in an effort to work together with the stores.”
Talking to the public, interacting via phone has been extremely effective. “The phone banks have been really customer-friendly. We’ll be doing those on a monthly basis through the transition,” said Mr. Ahrendt. “As one of the people who has spent time on the phone bank, the phone didn’t sit on the hook more than five seconds before there’s another call. They want to know if they need a new TV, where do they get the coupons. A lot of people are picking up on it, but there are still some that have confusion. The first screening question we ask when they call is, ‘Do you have cable or satellite with local channels?’”
For many consumers, after answering that question, they have one of their own: Why is this happening? “It’s a little mind-boggling to people, you know. ‘Where did this come from?’ ‘What was wrong with my old TV?’ ‘Why do I have to get a new TV?’ A lot of people are under the misconception that they need to buy a new television or they have to get cable or satellite,” said Mr. Ahrendt.
“We’re trying to make people aware of all the options. One thing our news department did in the last few weeks was take a converter box out to some of the outlying counties. They were knocking on doors of houses that had outside antennas and they were hooking up the converter box to show them that they didn’t need to buy a new TV or hook up to cable. It just takes a converter box and a decent antenna, and you can get not only all the broadcast channels, but you can get the multicast channels and you can get a great picture from the digital converter box,” he said.
One element of the Big Switch campaign that has allayed the financial concerns of viewers who must get a converter box is the coupon offer. WIS has been actively sharing information about the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration coupon program. “We refer people to the 800 number and we let them know that they have the ability to request two coupons per household. Each one is worth $40,” said Mr. Ahrendt. “You can’t combine them. They have to be used within 90 days to get a converter box.”
In addition to explaining how the coupons work, where to order them and how it’s smart financially to do so, WIS is providing a directory of electronics stores in the area that have the converter boxes available. Then they showed, on the air, how to hook it up. “We did news packages that show how one of our anchors could go out and unplug the antenna from the TV and plug in the converter box. We showed how you could have digital television without spending thousands of dollars on a big-screen plasma or LCD set. It doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
In the months ahead, WIS representatives will be out at all sorts of community functions, handing out Big Switch flyers and answering questions. They are prepared and anxious to make the digital transition a smooth one.
Mr. Ahrendt said, “We’ve been working hard on this and it just shows us that advance planning pays off. We’re a little bit nervous about what happens on February 17, 2009, but we just want to be as prepared as we can be not to lose too many viewers. It’s going to be a big day.”