Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Day Out - Final Preparations

Tomorrow is the day when analog TV broadcasting ceases. During these last few days of the analog era, everyone involved has been making their final preparations. What have they been up to?

The FCC certainly has been busy fulfilling its oversight role in the process. They recently got an additional $10 million to fund their call center (the one that got 55,000 calls during the national soft test on May 21) at full strength (4,000 operators) beyond June 16 (on the grounds that it's better to be overprepared than underprepared). They also held a final status meeting on June 3. At that meeting, officials stated that were sufficient coupon funds and dealer inventory to satisfy consumer demand for converter boxes. Concerns were also raised, among them seasonal interference effects (acting chairman Michael Copps's own box started having problems after the leaves began showing up on the trees in springtime). There was also a plea for more stations to "nightlight" (use the analog signal for DTV education rather than simply switch off) for up to 30 days after tomorrow (here in the Boston DMA, the PBS, CBS and ABC affiliates will be nightlighting).

The FCC has also been issuing final instructions to TV stations, clarifying the conditions under which they can do their 6/12 shutdown before midnight, letting them know that they can choose between the "-TV" and "-DT" suffix for their channel name and reminding them of their responsibilities to assist viewers during the transition.

They've also partnered with vendors, stations, libraries and consumer groups to set up a large network of walk-in help centers (vendors will also be providing installation assistance). You can check what's available in your area by going here and doing a zip-code search. In addition, they've partnered with AmeriCorps (a national service program for people between the ages of 18 and 24) to provide assistance for groups such as low-income individuals, minority and rural communities and others.

Assistance is coming from other areas as well, such as Boston's Commision on Affairs of the Elderly (this Boston Globe article details a visit from one of the installers).

In my last post, I pointed out that one reason the June 12 date held was that no one in Congress would support a further delay. That doesn't mean that no one is worried, 'tho. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (the main architect of the original delay) is still urging the various parties to do more for the consumer, raising the issue of in-home assistance with the FCC, possible converter box shortages with the NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the overseers of the coupon box program) and asking the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) to urge that at least one station in all 202 eligible markets to remain on in "nightlight" mode (that's twice as many as actually are doing so at the moment).

Speaking of broadcasters, they've been busy as well. The NAB held its own press conference today, and produced a figure of 1.75 million unready, much lower than Nielsen's final figure of 2.8 million (they did this by taking another survey's 2.2 million and deducting 440,000 households that were in the process of getting ready.

Broadcasters have also been informing their audiences over the air. I checked out today's late-afternoon newscasts to see how my local stations were doing. WBZ 4 had the best report, including mentions of possible reception problems and a list of local walk-in centers. They also were the only ones to mention their own shutoff time (12:30 PM). WCVB 5 also had a pretty good report. WHDH 7 had a shorter report, and if you relied on it you would think that the entire country was "switching to digital" at exactly midnight tomorrow (no mention that digital broadcasting exists today, or that other stations had transitioned months ago). I didn't see FOX 25's entire newscast, so perhaps I missed their story (I'll check their late news), or perhaps the fact that they themselves transitioned earlier makes this a less important story for them.

All of this activity, of course, is to deal with the remaining population of unready viewers. The final Neilsen numbers (2.8 million households, as mentioned above) include a breakdown of unreadiness by area, and you can see that the Los Angeles area clearly has the most, with over 250,000 (almost a tenth of the total). Perhaps that's why acting FCC chair Copps made a special visit there on Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm proud to say that Boston/Manchester fares much better with 27,704 (1.15%), although the Centris study I've mentioned a number of times indicates that our reception problems may be worse than most.

There's one more player in this game, one that stands to benefit from issues such as poor reception - cable & satellite. For cable's part, Kyle McSlarrow of the NCTA (National Cable Television Association) assured a "rapid response" to any issues that arise concerning operators' coverage of digital broadcast signals (he also had some things to say about allegations that the cheap basic service they are offering to broadcast refugees was being used as a hook to upsell new customers on more-expensive services).

And that's how things look right now, with the beginning of The Day coming in less than three hours. Tomorrow and the days immediately after should be interesting! I'll be passing on what I see as often as I can.

(NOTE: Thanks again to the posters of the AVS Forum transition thread, who have uncovered a lot of great stuff, and the Boston/OTA thread as well.)


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