With 15 days to go before analog TV is history, the FCC, NAB and stations across the country are going all out to make sure consumers know what needs to be done to avoid waking up on June 12 to just static.
Two weeks ago, noncommercial WHYY Philadelphia, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Commission on Technology and the FCC, opened an official walk-in center for anyone requiring assistance or information with the DTV transition.
Between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. each weekday (noon to 4 p.m. on weekends), locals at the center will be able to talk to experts and pick up printed instruction on how to switch from analog to digital TV reception before broadcasters turn off their analog signals once and for all at midnight on June 12.
“WHYY recognized the importance of this two years ago,” says the station’s Chief Technology Office Bill Weber. “We felt that as a broadcaster and as a public media entity we had a responsibility. We’re all about universal access. Anything that ends up being haves and have-nots — in this case, those who can get DTV and those who can’t — is something we’re concerned about.”
WHYY’s center is one of 400 that the FCC is setting up around the country and is part of the massive final push by the FCC and broadcasters to wean Americans from analog broadcasting.
To receive TV stations after June 12, consumers need one of three things: a new digital TV, a subscription to cable or satellite or an A-to-D converter box that permits old analog TVs to receive digital signals off air. (The government is subsidizing the purchase of the converters with $40 discount coupons. While there have been 58.2 million requests for coupons, only 29.4 million have been redeemed.)
The government and the TV industry — broadcasting and cable — have been trying to wake the public up to their digital options for two years and their efforts have intensified as the final analog deadline has approached.
But many Americans are still not ready.
As of last Monday (May 25), 3.1 million of the 114 million U.S. TV households (2.7 percent) were not prepared for June 12, according to Nielsen. The unprepared contain a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic households.
“We don’t expect to be able to reach every person,” says the FCC’s DTV coordinator William Lake. “But our goal is that no one will fail to make the transition who is motivated to act.”
What does it take to light a fire under consumers dragging their heels?
The FCC’s other efforts include approximately 200 workers in the field, assigned mainly to 49 “hot spot” markets — including many in California and Texas — with the greatest percentage of unprepared households.
“They’re doing clinics, presentations and working with the broadcasters,” Lake says.
The FCC has also beefed up its DTV.gov Web site, providing information about local events for managing the DTV transition and a feature that allows users to type in an address and receive information on how the level of the reception and how to aim the antenna.
As the transition approaches, the FCC is also super-charging its call centers, upping the number of people manning phones from 750 to 4,000.
The FCC is also offering in-home installations, through contractors, for up to 200,000 homes. The service is intended for homes headed by disabled, the elderly or others requiring additional assistance.
Meanwhile, the NAB is upping the ante on its DTV transition messaging, says spokesperson Shermaze Ingram.
On May 22, at the three-week mark, the NAB rolled out a series of “count-down” spots with a 15-second urgent message and a ticking clock. The spots are designed to market the remaining two weeks, seven days, six days, five days, four days, three days, two days and less than 24 hours from the deadline.
“We just want to make sure we’re grabbing everyone’s attention,” Ingram says.
By early February 2009, nine out of 10 stations had already conducted analog shut-off tests. The latest, which ran May 21, helped FCC official glean more information on what they might be facing on June 12. FCC call centers drew 55,000 calls.
FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield calls that a positive sign.
“We were glad people were paying attention,” he says. “That’s good news. It did serve as a wake-up call, which we hoped it would do.”
TV stations will feel the impact of calls made on June 12 and later since any calls related to local reception will be referred to stations. But the NAB’s Ingram believes that the stations are ready.
“I don’t think stations will be overwhelmed,” she says. “Each of the three times there was a test analog shut-off, we got a lot of calls. So many of the people who would have called have already done so.”
Nonetheless, with more than 3 million homes deemed unprepared for June 12, everyone involved in the DTV transition anticipates some hard work on June 12 and afterwards.
“We’ll be working throughout the weekend following June 12,” says the FCC’s Lake. “We’ll be working around the clock and as necessary to resolve issues from broadcasters and consumers.”
Pointing to experiences prior to the initial analog shut-off date, Feb. 17, when approximately half of the nation’s broadcasters converted to a digital signal, Ingram agrees.
“There may be many people who don’t realize there’s been a transition until the following week,” Ingram says. “We learned from the February switch that the spike [in calls] can happen days afterwards. We want to make sure we’re there to walk people through the process.”
The FCC has also mandated some special consideration for broadcasters struggling with any unforeseen issues in making the switch to new permanent digital channels around June 12.
The FCC will issue “special temporary authority” to allow stations to make technical changes such as moving a transmitter or increasing power as long as it doesn’t cause interference, Lake says.
When will the DTV transition be considered complete?
The FCC’s call center contract ends on June 30, says Wigfield, but can and may be continued beyond then if needed. “We’ll get daily reports about the call volume and see how it goes,” he says. “During the Feb. 17 period, you could see it build, then peak and drop off.”
Other FCC efforts will also continue past June 12: The in-home assistance contract ends on June 30, with the option of continuing through July 31. Walk-in centers run by the FCC have an eight-week period of operation, which means that, depending on when they opened, some will continue through July 31.
And the FCC hotline number (1-800-CALL FCC) will remain in service indefinitely. “That service is permanent,” says Wigfield.
At the NAB, Ingram believes that, for those not in the know by June 12, the ubiquitous advantages of digital TV will be enough to “sell” anyone who has waited to make the switch.
“This is an historic transition,” she says. “For viewers who haven’t yet experienced the better picture, sound and more stations of DTV, this is revolutionary for viewers of free television.”