Industry, Regulators Scramble To Meet Digital TV Conversion Deadline

"We are working diligently to get the final rule out very soon," said Todd Sedmak, Communications Director for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, warned the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) during its State Leadership Conference on Tuesday about fallout if the switch to DTV does not go smoothly. The group is meeting in the nation's capital this week to discuss and promote its agenda. The meeting ends Thursday, when all television sets must be equipped with digital technology before shipment.

"We don't know when the boxes will be ready," Dingell said. "We don't know how much personal information consumers must disclose on the application. We don't know whether retailers will maintain an adequate supply of boxes and report redemption rates in a timely manner. While there is a lot we don't know, we can be certain of one thing: If the converter box program doesn't proceed smoothly, a day of reckoning will come. A scapegoat will be found."

The average American household tunes into television eight hours a day, and 73 million television sets are at risk of going dark without help in meeting the February 2009 deadline for digital television, Dennis Wharton, executive VP of media relations for NAB, said during an interview Wednesday.

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"People spend more time watching television than they do sleeping on an average day," Wharton said. "This should make policy makers stand up and take notice that we'd better handle this issue with a lot of sensitivity."

The NAB shares many of Dingell's concerns. The association worries that the $1.5 billion allocated for the coupon program is not enough to cover all of households that the Government Accountability Office has said won't make the switch on time without at least $40 worth of assistance.

Dingell pointed out that some Americans will be upset about having to buy a $50 analog-to-digital converter box to keep a $100 television set working, and even those who are well-off are likely to be annoyed because they must connect new equipment.

"I'm detecting limited appreciation in certain quarters for the complexity and sensitivity of the transition," he said. "The DTV hard date became law more than a year ago. Yet we still have no details of the converter box program to assist disenfranchised American households."

Dingell said that the $5 million federal cap on consumer education that NAB supports is insufficient, but he praised the group for forming a coalition and committing other resources to the effort.

"Consumers need to know about the date, about the converter box program, and about how they can enroll in it," he said. "Come to think of it, the subject would make a fine series of public service announcements. And this effort may represent an opportunity for the industry -- the added programming and high-quality picture reception over the air will remind people of the wonders of free TV."

Wharton said the industry is eager to get specifications so it can proceed with a public-awareness campaign.

"We've got a mammoth educational effort to undertake to make sure consumers are aware of this deadline," he said. "We need to be aware of the specifics of the coupon program before we can go forward. We do have a Herculean task ahead of us."

Dingell criticized the NTIA for failing to reflect congressional debate. The NTIA's original notice of proposed rule making indicated that analog television owners with cable or satellite services would not be eligible for the coupon program and that there could be income requirements. An aide to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce said during an interview Wednesday exclusions like those would not reflect congressional intent.

The NTIA sent its final proposal to the Office of Management and Budget at the end of January. OMB has 90 days to approve the rules, but insiders expect a decision within weeks, or even days. NTIA communications director Todd Sedmak said the rules Dingell has criticized were included in early drafts, before public comments and revisions. He said the final proposal incorporates some of the 140 public comments that poured in last summer.

"The final rule will be based on the [laws] and the public comments," he said.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the industry and the coupon program's January 2008 deadline. The government still has to draft, distribute, and review applications for the coupons. Manufacturers are waiting for specifications before they can design and ship the boxes. And retailers will still have to stock their shelves.

The congressman urged focus on broadcasters' public interest obligations and criticized the Federal Communications Commission for "ignoring" those obligations.

"For 70 years, the unique partnership between broadcasters and the government built a free over-the-air local broadcasting system that is the envy of the world," he said. "Technology may have changed over those 70 years, but the basic commitment to serve the public and local viewers and listeners is what sets you apart."

Dingell said his committee would oversee the process closely in an attempt to ensure a smooth transition. He warned the NAB not to treat the transition like a political campaign, because, unlike an election, the NAB needs to capture more than 51% of its audience.

"You have been constructing towers, erecting transmitters, swapping out equipment, and paying multiple utility bills for some time -- yet this is not simply a technical challenge," Dingell told broadcasters. "Technology isn't a matter of 'if you build it, they will come.' The last time I checked, we weren't recording anything on our Betamaxes. The technology has to be user friendly and easily embraced by the public."