Relatively Smooth Digital Transition Creates Optimism for June

Feb 22, 2009  •  Post A Comment

For television executives, the early rush by 421 stations to switch to digital-only signals last week was an I-told-you-so moment, even if their public statements were more gracious.
Despite a push for postponement, a majority of stations that made the transition to digital-only signals on Tuesday had a relatively problem-free move.
For TVWeek’s comprehensive coverage of the digital television transition, visit the DTV Switch Navigator page.
On the other side of the ledger, politicians and bureaucrats who supported pushing back the official switch to June 12 from its original Feb. 17 date took the relative ease of the transition as an opportunity to claim the delay had been needed.
Both station executives and government officials now will prepare for the final transition in June, which will usher in a new era in TV broadcasting.
With questions resolved over how to manage the DTV switch, executives will be left to figure out how to use the subchannels they gain with the activation of digital signals.
The uncertainty comes as a downturn in local advertising and a once-in-a-generation recession drives some station groups to bankruptcy and has all outlets cutting costs.
The National Association of Broadcasters said the stations that made the transition Tuesday received an average of 50 to 200 calls from viewers looking for DTV advice. However, stations in some markets, including Oklahoma City and Cincinnati, reported nearly 1,000 calls from viewers.
The relative smoothness of the transition confirmed the opinions of general managers who said they believed their expensive and time-consuming public education efforts had adequately prepared viewers.
“Early reports indicate the DTV transition by 421 stations on Tuesday was successful, which is good news for both viewers and TV stations,” Jonathan Collegio, NAB’s VP for the digital television transition, said in a statement. “According to the FCC and stations that made the switch, the volume of viewer calls received following the transition paled in comparison to the 12.4 million over-the-air-only households that were in affected markets.”
That interpretation of the Feb. 17 fallout buttresses the position of station managers who opposed the delay, citing massive unbudgeted electricity costs to run analog and digital signals concurrently, as well as the potential for audience confusion.
The failure of a DTV disaster to materialize last week makes it appear that the government underestimated audience knowledge and preparedness about the switch. That bodes well for June, particularly if the coupon program funding consumer purchases of analog-to-digital converter boxes gets back off the ground before June.
“I’ve got to believe it’ll get easier [to transition in June],” said KGTV General Manager Jeff Block. “The biggest issue is probably in the last week the folks that contacted us who needed converter boxes and didn’t have their coupons.”
Advocacy groups who supported the switch said the dearth of massive problems last week justified the delay.
“We’re glad the Congress acted swiftly to put a better plan for the DTV switch, a phased transition,” said Consumers Union policy analyst Joel Kelsey. “Thanks to tougher FCC rules, in many or most early markets only one or two stations switched, which means that consumers were inconvenienced, rather than completely disconnected.”
In San Diego, the 27th largest market in the country, Mr. Block said his station fielded 125 calls on Wednesday, out of 1.66 million households in the area.
“Most of them needed guidance on how to scan, and most of them were solved through walking them through how to re-scan,” he said, referring to the process of setting up the converter boxes that allow digital signals to play on analog sets.
Other stations reported similar results.
In the 84th largest market of Springfield, Ill., WRSP General Manager Peter O’Brien called last week’s challenges “minimal,” with the station logging only a dozen calls from consumers needing help.
Some markets did report a deluge of phone calls. In Oklahoma City, stations handled hundreds of calls.
John Rossi, general manager of the city’s KOCB and KOKH, said his stations tackled around 900 calls over Tuesday and Wednesday.
He said a majority of the calls dealt with re-scanning issues, after the market’s CBS and PBS affiliates switched their analog signal to digital midday.
A partial explanation for the rise in calls in Oklahoma City is that the CBS and PBS affiliates in the area “flash cut” their analog signals, Mr. Rossi said.
At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, the CBS and PBS stations stopped transmitting their analog signals, then moved their digital signals to the channels of the former analog signals. Viewers had to re-scan for channels with their converter boxes in order to receive the digital signals on the new channels, which led to phone calls seeking advice.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the market’s MyNetworkTV affiliate, WSTR-TV, received 1,000 calls from viewers. The MyNet affiliate was the only station to transition in Cincinnati on Tuesday.
(Ira Teinowitz contributed to this report.)


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