DTV Switch Drama at TCA

Jan 7, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Check out all of TVWeek’s TCA coverage.
The Feb. 17 transition to digital television created some drama during the Wednesday morning sessions of PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Tour.
PBS Senior Vice President and Chief Television Programming Executive John Wilson assured the audience of television reporters and critics that the digital transition was proceeding fairly smoothly, with about 92% of U.S. households prepared for the switch.
But his boss, PBS President-CEO Paula Kerger, said she was “disheartened” by the news that federal funding for converter box coupons had dried up.
“To put [consumers] on a waiting list [for coupons] is inexcusable,” Ms. Kerger declared, especially “at a time when people are making hard economic choices” and, in some cases, canceling their cable subscriptions to save money.
She said PBS is committed to making sure every house is connected to a converter box, and urged her audience of journalists to keep writing about the DTV transition.
Public broadcasting kicked off the Winter TV Critics Tour at the Universal Hilton with a panel on its yearlong “Blueprint America” initiative, which includes a show produced by the recently rebranded WNET.org (previously Thirteen/WNET) with major support from the Rockefeller Foundation.
With “infrastructure” becoming a buzzword in the presidential campaign and a priority for the incoming Obama administration, WNET.org VP of National Production Stephen Segaller said, “We think our reporting has helped push this subject to the top of the agenda.”
Correspondent Ray Suarez and WNET.org President-CEO Neal Shapiro joined Mr. Segaller in a panel discussion on the infrastructure project and the panel promised a pair of timely prime-time documentaries on the subject, with the first scheduled for May 20.
Mr. Shapiro addressed the rebranding of WNET, saying it indicates that “television is not just television anymore. We are a multimedia company” that delivers online as well as on TV. He also said the “Blueprint America” initiative lends itself to repurposing; for instance, some of Mr. Suarez’s reporting on New York was turned into a local hour for WNET.
Mr. Wilson then delivered his update on the switchover to digital TV, which is scheduled to take place Feb. 17, despite what appears to be growing concern that many Americans aren’t ready. Late Wednesday, Broadcasting & Cable reported that key legislators are considering delaying the date of the switch.
Citing a poll conducted in October by the National Association of Broadcasters, Mr. Wilson said older households, led by people 55 and up, are leading the way in preparedness. Households led by people under 30 had the highest month-to-month readiness-improvement rate in December.
Hispanic households still lag the general population in preparing for the switch, he added.
Mr. Wilson cited strong evidence that the PBS audience is “disproportionately over-the-air-centric.” However, he said that was largely a matter of choice—“some people just don’t want cable”—rather than demographics.
As for the converter box coupon funds running out, he said, “Even of the 43 million who got coupons—about 43% of U.S. households—only half went and got a converter box. Some, like me, got [their coupon] too early, before boxes were available.
Both Mr. Wilson and Ms. Kerger pointed to the potential impact of the transition on households with more than one TV.
“I’m very concerned that the number of untethered sets has been grossly underestimated,” Ms. Kerger said, referring to secondary TVs not attached to a home’s cable or satellite service. “A lot of those are the ones kids use to watch our programming, especially in lower-income households.”
The change in administration may also affect PBS’ future.
PBS has been “working very carefully to reach out to the transition team,” and is encouraged by the interest shown by President-elect Barack Obama and his team in early childhood education and the arts, Ms. Kerger said. “But we’re also realistic, and these are very tough times,” she added.
Initially at least, the digital switchover is creating costs rather than revenues for PBS, she said. And that’s not counting the aggregate cost of $2 billion to convert all the PBS stations to digital broadcasting, she added.
On the programming front, Ms. Kerger said there would not be a second season of animated series “Click & Clack’s As the Wrench Turns,” although she said PBS “wants to do more of that kind of programming.”
John Boland, PBS’ chief content officer, announced that PBS Kids will debut the Jim Henson Co.’s CGI-animated series “Dinosaur Train” this fall. He also said PBS will premiere “Circus,” from the team behind recent PBS series “Carrier,” in fall 2010. The series follows the Big Apple Circus for a year, showing everything from performances to off-the-clock daily life for the circus company.
Also, in addition to his series on America’s national parks, set for this fall, Ken Burns is working on “The Tenth Inning,” a follow-up to his nine-part series “Baseball,” currently re-airing on the new MLB Network. The new film is set to air in spring 2010 after a rebroadcast of the original series, which debuted in 1994. “Tenth” covers the sport since “Baseball” was completed.
(Updated with final paragraph)


  1. There is only one converter box that I know of that is $40, it is the TR-40 made by dish at http://www.dtvpal.com. ‘Free’ with the coupon plus $8 shipping. It is a shame others are making you to pay more and not all features are included plus not one offer surround sound.

  2. I mean come on, is having access to TV really that important? I would much rather see my tax dollars be spent on food stamps, health care or programs for foster children. Giving it to people for TV is insulting!!!!!!

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