DTV Primer

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Just A Few Government Bits

January 20, 2008

Winter doldrums seem to have set in, with the cold weather keeping us indoors and the writers' strike giving us all the re-runs we can take.

Superbowl hype has started; we're just a couple of weeks away from that biggest TV event of the year (some are saying this year's February 3 Superbowl could be the most-watched TV show ever, perhaps but for the final episode of M*A*S*H).

Other than that, not much going on in digital TV transition-land.

First, I ran across a picture of Sharp's SE94 series new textured finish bezels with "eye-catching corner accents" that I mentioned last week. It is different.

The FCC held its monthly open meeting on Thursday. No new DTV rules were adopted or even considered (the TV industry is still lobbying on the two outstanding proposed regulations - more on this later).

The advertised subject of the meeting was presentations on the agency's strategic plan and a comprehensive review of FCC policies and procedures. What actually happened was that Commission section heads made their 2007 annual reports, which were recitations of their "major accomplishments" for the year. The Commissioners told the staff how good they've all been, thanked them for their tireless service, and that was that.

Last Tuesday there was an FCC press conference of sorts, during which Chairman Martin announced that Congress had finally given the FCC some money for DTV education--$2.5 million for fiscal year 2008. We'll have to see what they do with it.

The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet will hold a hearing on January 29 on "Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) Services in the Digital TV Age." No further information provided, but I expect they are thinking of access to broadcasters' digital sub-channels. A public interest thing.

The same subcommittee will hold another DTV transition status hearing on February 13.

Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey:

"As part of our ongoing oversight of the DTV transition process, this hearing will be a key opportunity to check-in on the various aspects of the transition, which is so important for public safety, economic growth, innovation, consumer welfare, and the future of television itself. With just a year to go, we want this transition to be as smooth as possible for American consumers."

Expect much of the discussion to be on the availability of converter boxes.

Speaking of which, there will be a multi-agency meeting next Thursday (hosted by the NTIA) entitled "Educating Americans About the DTV Transition and the TV Converter Box Coupon Program." This meeting was originally supposed to be closed to the public; someone had enough sense to ditch the Kneuer-inspired secrecy.

The main item on the agenda is an hour-long session "Participants Roundtable Discussion -- Outreach Plans and Opportunities," moderated by Anthony Wilhelm (a Kneuer protege). I'm not hopeful of anything being accomplished, other than a little public relations, but we should at least get an accounting of the current statistics (number of coupons requested, boxes approved, retailers certified, etc.).

And finally, those two long-awaited DTV rules continue to defy a final FCC decision. Industry lobbyists are still arguing their cases.

There's the bi-directional cable TV interface standard -- cable industry vs. consumer electronics industry. Chairman Martin wanted a resolution in time to get compliant TVs on the shelves by next December. Doesn't seem likely.

And there's the FCC Consumer Education Initiative. Broadcasters vs. the public. Will the FCC mandate a minimum level of consumer education?

This past week, on the 14th and the 16th, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) lobbied Commission executives against any mandatory educational transition messages.

Their logic? They presented the following "Safe Harbor Plan."

  • Broadcasters have developed a comprehensive plan to reach virtually every American adult with sufficient frequency to alert and educate them of the impending transition to all digital broadcasting.

  • The FCC should establish a "safe harbor" recognizing that stations that participate in the broadcaster plan are meeting the needs of their communities for information about the DTV transition.

  • Because it was developed by experts drawing upon the extensive marketing experience of our industry, the broadcaster plan will be more effective than any government mandated plan.

  • The plan will engage consumers via television (with differing approaches including on-air "action spots" that will air in all day parts, 30 minute educational programs and informational messages), online resources, community events and outdoor advertising.

  • Broadcasters will evaluate and adjust the plan as needed to ensure effectiveness.

  • 1,476 commercial and non-commercial television stations (84% of all full power stations) are currently committed to the plan. We will continue to work toward 100% participation.

  • Broadcasters will document their efforts on a quarterly basis and provide reports to the FCC.

  • The FCC can create the safe harbor simply by stating that any broadcaster that participates in the plan and submits quarterly reporting forms will be deemed compliant with its obligations to inform the public about the upcoming DTV transition.

If the broadcast industry is so committed to educating the public, why are they so set against any minimum government requirements? And what of the almost 300 stations who refuse to sign on to the NAB's voluntary program? And what about all the other stations who have "committed"? What's to keep them from reneging?

It would not be the first time the TV industry has made promises to the government and then failed to execute.

The CBS affiliate in my area is doing a good job with consumer education, but they were the first commercial station in the country to go on the air with a digital signal, and their local news broadcasts are in HD. The other stations are not doing nearly as well. What about the 90 or so stations in the country which have yet to broadcast anything digitally, or the many other stations that still can't do HD?

They're going to need some regulatory motivation to tell their viewers about the transition to digital. And sooner is better than later.

Until next week . . .