DTV Switch Countdown: Preparing for Tuesday

Feb 15, 2009  •  Post A Comment

For San Diego TV stations, Tuesday, Feb. 17, can’t come soon enough.
As one of the major markets expecting to transition to a digital-only signal this week, San Diego station general managers said their market is ready to make the switch, despite the government’s determination that the nation at large won’t be ready to switch until June 12.
For TVWeek’s comprehensive coverage of the digital television transition, visit the DTV Switch Navigator page.
“Most of the people who will be ready are ready,” said Jeff Block, general manger of McGraw-Hill-owned KGTV-TV.
Stations going digital-only this week say they expect little difficulty with the change, noting that almost three years of preparation should have been enough to inform viewers. Any confusion, they say, probably is due to the government’s decision to change the DTV date just a few weeks before the original Feb. 17 deadline.
When stations throw the switch at 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 17, America will get its best preview yet of what a digital-only TV future looks like. While 368 stations are greenlighted to switch Tuesday, and more could be approved before then, the rest of the country’s approximately 1,800 full-power stations won’t have to switch until June 12.
Should the Feb. 17 switch go poorly, pressure will increase on stations and the government to educate viewers before June.
In San Diego, the 27th largest market in the United States, four network-affiliated stations are making the move to digital-only. The ABC, CBS, Fox and CW outlets throw the switch this week.
NBC-owned KNSD-TV is waiting until June. Stations owned and operated by NBC, CBS, Fox, Telemundo and ABC are postponing their digital transitions until June 12 on orders from corporate.
According to Nielsen Media Research, a little more than 6% of San Diego households are completely unprepared for the transition. Of the 56 markets containing local people meters, San Diego ranks 42nd in terms of preparedness.
Nielsen’s last report said that as of Feb. 1, 5.1% of the country’s households were totally unready for DTV and additional households are only partly ready, meaning a switchover could temporarily leave some sets unable to view TV. The report said the share of households that are ready varies widely from market to market and the readiness numbers for demographic groups also vary widely by market.
The National Association of Broadcasters has suggested the estimates of those who are unready may be somewhat overstated.
Stations in San Diego made the cut of broadcasters who were approved to continue with their Feb. 17 DTV plans even after the government switched the official date to June 12. Last week the FCC said 491 stations sought to switch to DTV early, but the agency tentatively rejected 123 applications.
The FCC said those rejections were mostly because of concerns that multiple stations in a market switching early would leave non-digital viewers unable to get needed news and emergency information.
Most of the stations were expected to reach agreement for a single local station to stay analog, letting the other market stations make the early switch.
General managers in San Diego foresee little difficulty with the switch. KSWB General Manager Ray Schonbak said of a recent analog shutoff test that in a market of 1.66 million households, he received 500 calls.
“I have had 11 calls yesterday. Most of those calls are, ‘How do I hook [the digital convertor] up?’” said the manager of the Tribune-owned station. He chalked up the lack of calls to cable penetration in San Diego, which he said was nearly 92%.
Mr. Schonbak is expecting a smooth transition this week.
Nielsen is suggesting that Wednesday will dawn with the prospect of the DTV transition causing slightly lower TV ratings.
“We don’t expect to see any drastic changes, but based on the number of affiliates for a particular network that are switching, some modest changes are likely,” said Alana K. Johnson, a Nielsen spokeswoman.
Local stations already are having to deal with a delayed sweeps period, with the usual February sweep moved to March to avoid possible interruption of service by the transition. Stations depend on sweeps to set local ad rates.
For San Diego, stations still are prepping for the transition by following government guidelines and setting up call centers for viewers with questions or problems.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle as stations march toward the switch is the digital television converter-box coupon program. The coupon program’s running out of funds was a key reason for delaying the switchover.
A reignition of the program is in the works as congressional passage of the economic stimulus plan could restart the mailing of digital TV converter-box coupons.
The stimulus plan includes $640 million for the converter box program, $90 million of which may be used for education and outreach to viewers who might be more likely to be unprepared.


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