Digital Deadline Fast Approaching Stations

Aug 19, 2007  •  Post A Comment

A moment of truth awaits the television broadcasting industry in 2009, when TV stations will switch to digital signals and leave analog transmissions behind. While the government and media companies are taking positive steps to prepare for the transition, they need to accelerate efforts to make sure no viewer is left behind.
Last week, the government body charged with overseeing the transition announced that it had awarded IBM a contract worth up to $120 million to provide services to ease the process. That body, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, has a $1.5 billion budget that will be used to subsidize the switch to digital. People with analog TVs will be eligible for $40 coupons to help them buy the $80 converter boxes that will keep their current sets from becoming lifeless, unblinking eyes.
The NTIA’s awarding of the contract was on time, which may give TV executives reason to cheer. The National Association of Broadcasters has a plan to spread the word, organizing a road show this fall along with a multifront media outreach program.
But the clock is ticking, and there’s no guarantee that the coupon program will reach all the people who need it. And the constituencies who will suffer the most disproportionate impact are the people who least deserve to be disenfranchised: the poor, minorities and the elderly.
Assuming that the switch won’t go seamlessly, some TV executives in Washington are playing the angles, sussing out who may be the fall guy if on Feb. 17, 2009, too many sets go dark.
What’s at stake? The numbers tell the tale. About 20 million U.S. households rely solely on over-the-air transmission to stay informed and be entertained. There are another 14 million homes that get cable or satellite, but have secondary TVs that receive only over-the-air signals.
So unless those analog set owners get their converter boxes on time, you have a direct hit to an audience base for a challenged medium. For broadcast stations — whose use of the public airwaves carries with it an obligation to public service — failure to make sure their viewers are properly equipped is tantamount to abandonment.
Ask your non-industry friends whether they are aware their analog TVs will be useless come 2009. How many of them know about the coupon program? With 18 months to go until the deadline passes, the broadcast industry is cutting things close. While the deadline may be pushed back, we’d recommend pumping up the urgency.


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