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Tracking the Path to Digital Transition Delay

Feb 8, 2009  •  Post A Comment

In the end, a bad brew of poor planning and politics led Congress to delay the nation’s transition to all-digital television signals by three months to June 12.
In the poor planning column: An underfunded coupon program to help pay for analog converter boxes; public outreach in some markets that raised concerns about whether the switch could be accomplished without a big disruption; and too little effort, too late by government agencies to deal with consumer confusion.
For TVWeek’s comprehensive coverage of the digital television transition, visit the DTV Switch Navigator page.
On the political side, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats had little to gain by going forward with the February switchover. They would have taken the heat had the Feb. 17 switch been a disaster. The delay at least gives them time to assess the political risks and attempt remediation.
With television station groups now deciding whether they’ll switch over before June (and incur the costs of maintaining dual signals), TelevisionWeek analyzes what went wrong.
Nielsen Numbers
Nielsen reported last month that as of Jan. 18, 5.7% of households were completely unprepared for digital TV and would lose their TV signal. That report provided independent confirmation that massive problems might attend a February switch.
Nielsen’s numbers suggested some minority groups would be more deeply affected than the general population. The data showed 9.9% of African American and 9.7% of Hispanic households were completely unready, with particular problems in big markets including Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles.
(A day after the House vote, Nielsen reported that as of Feb. 1, 5.1% of households are still unready and that the percentage of African American, Hispanic and households headed by those under 35 that are unready exceeds 8%.)
Those numbers brought advertising groups on board to urge the delay and probably contributed to TV networks’ support of the delay. U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., prominently mentioned the Nielsen statistics in his floor speech urging passage of the bill that pushed the date back to June.
“If almost 6% of the nation’s households lose all TV service, I think most people would declare the digital TV transition to be a failure,” he said.
The Coupon Program
From the beginning, the government was taking a gamble by trying to project the number of coupons needed to help consumers with analog sets buy a converter box that would allow them to watch digital TV.
“They did not put in enough money,” said Mark Lloyd, VP of strategic initiatives of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He said the $1.5 billion initially allocated by Congress for the coupon program—with some going to administration—shorted money for research and advertising.
Better research might have found the biggest basic flaw in the coupon program: Some coupons were never redeemed in the 90 days they were active, but government accounting rules prevented new coupons from being issued until the old coupons expired.
As of last week, 3.7 million requests for converter box coupons were on a waiting list.
Rep. Boucher last week said that even if the program was fixed quickly, the structure of the program, including sending out coupons via third-class mail instead of reimbursing purchases, guaranteed the coupons wouldn’t be in consumers’ hands in time.
Advertising Campaigns
Ad campaigns promoting the digital TV transition effectively publicized the switchover date, but may have left some consumers confused about key points.
Studies suggest that not all consumers understood whether they needed a converter box, or a new antenna. Hooking up converter boxes and programming them were other stumbling blocks.
Consumer groups suggest one reason for the confusion may be that the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Commerce relied too much on the industry to communicate with the public about the DTV transition.
Whether that’s true or not, the government neither sought to tailor the DTV messages nor developed a strategy for communicating key points some other way.
“They took their hands off the switch and left it to the industry,” said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union.
Mr. Lloyd said the industry campaign was “extraordinarily successful” in getting across the date of the change, but as the deadline approached, consumers remained confused on how exactly to physically make the switch on home sets.
That confusion, in turn, left a bigger job for the FCC and more need for call centers and agencies to deal with the unresolved questions.
Support Efforts
The Obama administration was concerned about the lack of support available to people having trouble making the switch. Amidst indications that a disproportionately large number of people in minority groups, seniors and people with disabilities would have trouble getting digital TV to work, there was little sign that the government would be there to help.
As the date approached, those concerns didn’t lessen. The FCC awarded some contracts for telephone help centers and broadcasters promised assistance, but there were doubts about whether it would all come together quickly enough to be effective.
On the House floor last week, Democrats noted Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell’s comments about calling the FCC call center and finding himself put on hold or hung up on.
Politics
House Democrats were never convinced that the $1.5 billion set aside for the coupon program in the digital TV transition was an adequate sum. They also were unhappy that the FCC wasn’t doing more to coordinate the transition.
The November elections and Mr. Obama’s victory gave them the power to do something about it.

75 Comments

  1. It’s ludicrous to say that the Feds “relied too much on the industry to communicate with the public about the DTV transition” made any difference whatsoever in the outcome.
    The broadcasters had the strongest incentive to communicate the message, and — BTW — are professionals who know how to make effective ads. Anyone who saw the ads got as much information as could be conveyed in a 60 second TV ad or a 3-minute story on local TV news.
    Anyone who’s done tech support knows that some problems require a F2F. Maybe telephone support will solve some of these, but others won’t be solved until an expert comes out to the house. Is it really worth spending billions to hire, train and deploy a temporary field support force?

  2. What seems to be forgotten in all this is that Congress originally set the analog turnoff for Dec. 31, 2006, “or when 85% of the households in a market have adopted digital technology.” So in the early going, they were perfectly willing to throw 15% of TVHH under the bus. Now the industry is being forced to jump through mega-hoops and spend money it doesn’t have to capture the remaining 5% — and does Nielsen include “have a converter box but it’s sitting on the shelf because I haven’t bothered to unpack it and hook it up” in their “completely unready” universe???

  3. My two coupons were expired before $40 converters were available. I have received no answers regarding reviving these coupons or issuing new ones. I admit it was a mistake to be an early bird on this one. Because the digital signal has a drop-dead threshold, noisy rabbit ear antenna reception is not available, subsequently the stations 35 miles away are not available on digital. I understand this, many do not. I have read reports of much testing that occurred. I am amazed that this limited usable radiation pattern was dismissed as a problem. I do not have access to a rooftop antenna and therefore I am limited to mostly worship or Spanish language broadcasts.

  4. While likely a given…it should be noted that the President still hasn’t even signed the bill into law! But broadcasters must give an answer on whether they plan to shut off analog today.
    Suzanne has hit it dead-on….why are we catering to such a minority of viewers.
    Our station would prefer not to operate with the unbudgeted expense of 2 transmitters, but we also want to operate on our post-transition facility…not the pre-transition one with inferior coverage. The goal is to serve the most viewers isn’t it? Until the FCC can tell us we can change channels we are stuck operating both transmitters.

  5. Erec, interesting post. And it is at the core of this “problem” IMO. You sound like you are an intelligent guy with some technical knowledge. I’ll take a blind leap here and guess that you are gainfully employed (well, you’re reading TVWeek), and could afford to purchase a $40 converter box. If that is the case, why haven’t you? In my mind, this coupon program was always for the poor and the elderly, not for just everyone who relied on rabbit ears but could afford to purchase a converter on their own. My 0.02, YMMV.

  6. I have been out on the road explaining DTV to Iowans for 10 years. I have listened to their responses and questions go from “why do we have to do this?” through “what do I have to do?” to “I have tried it and it doesn’t work.” I think the industry in general has done a good job at making people aware of the the transition. However, awareness and understanding are not the same thing. We have helped literally thousands of people with their DTV reception issues and one of the big ones is that VHF and UHF signals behave differently as they travel from transmitting antenna to receive antenna. In addition received analog signals behave differently than received digital signals. So guess what, telling people that a change is coming is easy…making sure they understand it and are taking the correct steps is a little more challenging. Now is time to educate people about how to receive DTV while they still have analog service. We will never get all of the procrastinators to move but there is a huge number of people who have made the effort and are having problems and they need help. And the solution isn’t to post something on your website because the a lot of the people who watch over the air television, don’t spend much time on the web, if they have access to it at all.

  7. Sometimes, to get the people to make the changes, they have to be thrown under the bus. The old cliche, you can lead a horse to water, certainly applies here. Until it’s not available will those consumers do anything about it. There has been more than enough information going out, i personally have written or been the subject matter expert to a local paper discussing the changes. So what if a handful of your constituents don’t get TV, they have know about the transition for a long time.

  8. To date, I have not heard a single TV PSA that is 100% accurate when it explains the conversion to digital TV broadcasting. To make it worse, terms are used like “antenna TV” that are not clear to the viewers who need these PSAs most.
    The real problem is that obtaining a converter, hooking it up and turning it on are not all that is needed. Unfortunately all these converters have minds of their own, but all I have tested require the user to SCAN for channels before they will pick up a thing. When the converter reports no channels found, many consumers are lost.
    IT IS THE ANTENNA STUPID! That is what the industry needs to be saying now. And not just any old antenna, nor pointed in any given direction. ANd then to complicate matters, once analog stations are shut off, many digital channels will be moved (but not their designators!). So someone with a perfectly working system and a UHF only antenna may have problems when those same stations move back to VHF.
    By leaving this transition date at 2/17/09, at least the current administration had someplace to point thier fingers. Now that they (think they’ve) take control of the issue, it will be all their fault. In the meantime use of the new 700 MHz spectrum is on hold and broadcasters continue to pay double electrical bills.

  9. Three points:
    1) Broadcaster contributed to the confusion by not clearly saying: “You only need a converter if you get your TV off the air, using an antenna. If you have cable or satellite TV, you don’t need to do anything.” God forbid they drive customers to cable. How many converter box coupons are now in the hands of cable and satellite subscribers, who don’t need them?
    2) The same 5% of citizens will not be prepared by June 2009. You can give them until June 2050 and they still will not be prepared.
    3) Does the government really have to hold our hands and create programs for everything? How long will people sit there looking at static before they ask their family members, friends or the guy at Radio Shack what they have to do watch American Idol again?

  10. IMHO, the only thing worse than the original coupon campaign and the 2/17/09 cutoff date is this bill Congress has passed that is awaiting BHO’s signature.
    Coupons still are not available (did we really need them in the first place?), and those who didn’t prepare for the switch are more confused now than ever about what it means to them.
    In the markets I travel in, the TV industry has done a good job with PSA’s, phone banks, how-to items in local newscasts, etc.
    My brother-in-law is no technical whiz, and he has figured it out … got his converter box, hooked it up himself, adjusted his antenna, etc. … and he’ll be 80 in a few weeks.

  11. I’ve been spending the last 14 mos traveling around the New Mexico giving talks on the transition. We’ve held a number of very successful open houses where folks can bring in a box, hook it up with our engineers and production people and learn how the menus work. F2F is definitely the way to go at this point.
    One of the biggest problems I have is talking a technically deficient customer through the menus to get set up right. Sure would have been nice if the consumer electronics industry had agreed on some terminology and menu design. Try telling an 80 year old lady that she needs to buy a 300-75 ohm adapter, hook it up to the RF input and call up the menu to activate RF scan. I’ve argued with unhappy viewers that insisted that their box didn’t have the correct inputs because they couldn’t understand that “RF in”, “Ant. In” and “In from Ant.” are the same thing. Try cutting a thirty second PSA where you show the audience how to hook up the box, and also explain the vagaries of jargon and computer menus. That is where I find most of the problems today.
    At the end of the day its worth remembering that IT’S JUST TV! Nobodys gonna die. I’ll keep repeating that while the torches burn and the thousands of irate Idol fans march on my station.

  12. Suzanne and John have it right. What should have been done was to figure out a reliable way to get coupons and converters to people AFTER the transition date. However, with limited funds, a gov’t bureacracy, and an overarching requirement to limit fraud, this is probably impossible.

  13. If you think that 100% of the people will be ready by the next drop-dead date, you must think this is the last Economic Stimulus package we are going to see.

  14. Look these aren’t second graders. We don’t need to hold their hands. If they want T.V. they will do what needs to be done to watch Jerry Springer. These same people will still not be ready the next time.

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