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Problems Plague Digital Transition

Feb 17, 2008  •  Post A Comment

With the country’s transition to digital television broadcasting now just a year away, speed bumps are starting to appear along the route.
The prospect that many consumers could lose station signals on some or all of their TV sets on Feb. 17, 2009, was raised last week not only in Congress, but in public policy surveys and—in what could be a bad sign for major TV stations—at Nielsen Media Research’s annual meeting with ad agency and marketing clients.
Whether the glitches will be temporary or have long-lasting viewing impact remains to be seen, but there are some strong warnings.
“There will be enough [calls from] consumers to light up the switchboard on both the House and Senate side,” Chris Murray, senior counsel of Consumers Union, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week.
Ron Bruno, president of the Community Broadcasters Association, which represents low-power TV stations, said consumers could lose access to 567 low-power stations and thousands more low-power translators rebroadcasting signals, leaving them angry and the stations facing bankruptcy.
Nielsen cautioned that 13 million households—10.1% of households nationally—could lose access to new TV signals, but that the potential impact is far greater for certain demographics and locations.
According to Nielsen, 17.3% of Hispanic households and 12.4% of African American households get all their signals over the air. More than 20% of all TVs used in Houston, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., get their signals over the air. The switch would have far less impact in New York, Hartford, Conn., Boston, Philadelphia and Tampa and West Palm Beach, Fla., where fewer than 7% get their signals over the air.
The latest concerns come as the transition makes some major strides this week. Retailers are launching sales of converter boxes that enable analog sets to receive digital signals, and the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration begins distributing 300,000 coupons that cut the price of the converters by $40. NTIA eventually will mail out millions of the coupons.
Government officials—several of whom are unlikely to be around when the transition happens following the election and a change in the administration—as well as industry executives say the transition is going well, with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public service announcements set to air, fliers going up in stores and broadcasters staging local talks and outreach programs. The FCC has asked for $20 million to publicize and help with the transition.
Democratic congressmen have been concerned that too little is being spent, nothing like the hundreds of millions of dollars spent overseas for similar transitions affecting fewer people. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., last week called the $20 million “woefully inadequate.”
Last week warnings of new problems were sounded. Among them:
Low-power stations: When full-power stations switch to digital, not all low-power stations will switch as well. Some offer programming in languages other than English and others are independent stations. It’s now turning out that the initial government publicity and the standards for digital converter boxes didn’t take the low-power stations into account. Consumers who buy most of the converter boxes approved so far will lose access to the low-power analog channels. New boxes that, when switched off, allow analog signals through are now being approved, but the Community Broadcasters Association and some congressmen are worried consumers won’t get those new boxes.
“The transition hasn’t been handled well,” said Greg Herman, VP of technology for CBA, whose outlook for the switchover isn’t rosy. “I don’t accept that all over-the-air television viewers will be properly equipped. The best efforts of everyone will not ensure that that happens.”
Antennas: Almost all the focus on digital transition equipment to date has been about over-the-air set-owners getting converter boxes. Last week both a study and a congressman suggested it might not be quite that simple: Some households also may need to buy new antennas and install them, not exactly the simplest thing to do in February weather conditions in northern cities. Both Centris, the research firm that conducted the study, and Rep. Rick Boucher, R-Va., cited the United Kingdom’s experience with digital transition. Mr. Boucher noted the U.K. also provided advisers to go house to house to determine the cause of any signal problems.
Ratings: Nielsen won’t come out and say that ratings could suffer from the switchover, but there are hints from its study and from some ad buyers that Feb. 19 might not be the most opportune time to buy ads aimed at Hispanics in Portland, Ore.
No one is yet predicting massive long-term rating changes as opposed to temporary blips, but Nielsen’s study suggests the potential magnitude of the converter problem.
In addition to the homes without any digital access, 26.2% of Hispanic households have one or more analog-only sets. The number is 19.5% for African American households, 18.8% for Asian households and 15.2% for white households.
While Congress has been concerned about seniors losing service, Nielsen said 12.3% of households headed by youths under 35 would be affected, compared with only 9.4% of those headed by people over 55.
Eric Rossi, senior manager of product leadership at Nielsen, said the company will continue to track the numbers, but the first view indicates there is much work ahead.
“We really don’t know what the ratings impact will be,” he said. He suggested the industry’s “good faith” effort will get the message out to consumers, but whether consumers really take action in advance remains to be seen.
Brian Wieser, senior VP for Magna Global, a major ad buyer, noted that unlike the U.K., the U.S. is switching without going through a test or a trial in a few markets.
“A big bang is fraught with more risks than one that is not,” he said.
Upselling: The digital switch may be a perfect time to buy a new TV set. Consumer groups are worried that people will be buying them not because they want them, but they wrongly think they have to.
“A third of people have no awareness of the transition and three of four consumers who do are completely confused and likely to spend money that they don’t have on televisions they don’t need,” said Consumers Union’s Mr. Murray.
He said the government isn’t doing enough to break through the maze of messages about digital to tell consumers what they need to know.
“People should know the least-cost choice for the switch. Everyone is going to be doing digital upselling that is in their interest. It may be a good time to make those decisions [to buy a new set], but because the government is forcing this change on consumers, the government has an obligation to filter out some of the bias and self-interest,” he said.

82 Comments

  1. To be honest, its hard to believe that not all consumers who watch television and/or enter discount retailers are unaware of the upcoming switch – therefore, as to the consumer-side, I don’t really see a major problem – the “DTV” messages on the switchover from analog to digital transmissions have been everywhere. I would agree, that low power broadcasters do have problems in the financing of the needed hardware. However, one way to rectify that is low power operations leasing space on some of the public broadcasting stations with unused channel allocations. It’s win-win, the low power stations would be assured of a digital berth, and the public broadcasters would pick up a new avenue of revenue until the low power station owners can make the switch.
    Andrew Boggs, BA
    MALL727net

  2. As I understand, digital is harder to read than analog. Analog tv, we have sounds and visuals to understand what is going on inside the television, but I seem to think digital will be a bunch of 0s and 1s, and I have read digital to be. A bunch of 0s and 1s is much harder to understand. Imagine the green screens in the movie, The Matrix, in which they hacked into the matrix, but instead of pictures and sounds, they had to read this absurd coding. Not all of us can read digital code, except for maybe a few computer programmers, but for the average joe in America, I’d bet good money they can’t. Even if you could read digital codes, I don’t think watching tv would be enjoyable anymore. Watching Friends will never be the same. Ross says, “I thought we were on a break!” Now, instead of laughing hysterically, it’s going to be 010101110101001010010101, where’s the punchline on that one???!

  3. This is the first time I actually heard of this. I thought digital tv would still broadcast pictures and sounds, fluid visual motion just like before. I did not know they would be broadcasting in another language. If this is true, I am definitely not going to watch tv anymore. Who has the time to learn digicode? I’ll stick with my analog tv and video tapes thank you very much! Smart move U.S. gov’t!!!

  4. I’m not sure that many people know there are thousands maybe millions of households that will not recieve a digital signal because of their distance from a tower. I live in midcoast Maine and I get “no signal” with the converter box. That means that my one digital tv will get no signal after Feb 17 also. Cable and satellite are not an option because of our location. I have parents in their 90’s who are going to be out of luck, no network stations or MPBN after Feb. They had better come up with another option before Feb.

  5. I’m in Ellen’s boat. I have a digital TV and a rooftop antenna. I get 10 analog stations now, but ZERO digital stations (in spite of the fact that there are more than 10 available in the area). I’m 40 miles from the tv transmitter towers. I guess it is back to listening to murder mysteries on AM for entertainment, unless of course, the FCC has decided to modernize that band as well.

  6. This is what’s wrong with the American system. Japan had limited trouble with their transition to HDTV long ago because the government got involved. In America, we constantly think that Gordon Gekko is going to provide us with a better answer. It took us years to even come up with a plan because of all the competing business interests who wanted to block certain aspects for the own greedy purposes. The government could have taken some of the ill gotten gain it will get for selling off the high end UHF channels – we’re talking multi-billions – and subsidize individual TV stations or converter box manufacturers to conduct extensive field tests. But no, instead they unleashed on us a confusing system where many of the early converters didn’t meet the initial standards, many had to be immediately redesigned because they were defective, support was poor, nobody really cared if a lot of people where in places where they won’t get it, and there were wide problems with the coupons. Why a 90 expiration date? Was the federal budget due to expire in 90 days? If that was the case, we wouldn’t be $10 trillion in debt.
    I live 25 miles from a medium size city, but am renting a trailer in a low area. I can still get some of the stations, but sometimes it’s so finicky I have to tune 10 minutes to regain a channel I had earlier in the day. I’m a former Broadcast Engineer. I’ll work it out. But, literally, millions won’t. It’s hardly a set it and forget it system.
    Government shoud tread in the private sector lightly. But when something effects all the people, government needs to protect the public interests. But what do you expect in a country were low educated dodos believe everything some rich guy tells them, and vote that way. Not that anyone with money would be greedy enought to try and warp the system so that can make more money, regardless of the legality. Maybe Ronald Reagan’s greatest lie was that famous quote about government. What he should have said is, “The most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from Wall Street and I’m here to help.'”
    This thing is a minor mess and the switchboards will indeed light up in February, and they deserve to. To bad Wall Streets won’t light up, instead of the governments, but we’ll probably all be begging on the streets by then.

  7. digital tv does have sharper pictures but it has problems too like picture freeze up or no sound or no signal the goverment needs to keep using the analog tv signal it has done good the past 50 years .why mess with a system when it has worked perfect for years.

  8. I am a former TV repair technician, I have already noticed many problems even with new ATSC TV sets picking up the over the air digital stations in my area when the same sets using the NTSC tuner pick up the analog signal with little problem. Hand held portable sets even with a ATSC tuner are very hard to use. Moving a few inches and the signal is lost. Sound and video break up and the program you are watching has a loss of information.
    Congress in the best interest of the american public should scrap the idea of eliminating analog brodcasts and require both digital and analog broadcasts to continue as they have been for the past few years.
    Over the air Digital signal with high definition programing on a tv equipped for HD is fantastic when you can get a good signal. But even with a huge outdoor antenna, with rotor, on a house on top of a hill, the signal can still, and does break up from time to time making the experience less than desirable.
    Congress should not fix someting that is not broken. Doing away with analog tv brodcasting would be the same as doing away with brodcasting AM radio since FM is available. After all there was a time in my life when radios did not have an FM band on them.
    It is also not fair to the American public using over the air viewing to suggest that they need to start paying for a satellite or cable to continue watching television programming.

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