Has the DTV Tsunami Arrived?

Mitchell Szczepanczyk / Chicago Media Action

Converter Box

Converter Box

In a pair of previous columns for FlowTV.org, I’ve outlined the concerns over the conversion of television across the United States to an all-digital format, required by law to occur on February 18, 2009. While many of the benefits of the conversion have been touted, many of the growing concerns and problems involved with the conversion and its aftermath for perhaps 50 million American analog TV viewers have seen little light. While publicity and awareness have been increasing, that has not translated into improved actions. Indeed, we are now less than one year until the time the conversion is to take place and we stand well shy of the effort needed for a smooth conversion. Instead we are seeing the makings of a perfect storm on the DTV front, which like other perfect storms could leave a trail of ruin in its wake.

Countdown to education, or to disaster?

The media business press is reporting that the FCC is telling TV broadcasters to significantly escalate awareness of the digital conversion, which includes the following:

–Setting minimum requirements of public service announcements at all times of the broadcast day, and increasing the number of announcements as we get closer to February 18.

–Having broadcasters display a “crawl” (as it’s called) scroll at the bottom of TV screens, along with a “countdown clock” in the days before February 18.

If broadcasters abide by these mandates – and that’s not a given, since commercial broadcasters have a history of fiercely fighting public service mandates – it could rank as a coordinated awareness campaign without parallel in American television broadcasting history. (By comparison, the commercial blackout on TV lasted for a couple of weeks at most; the DTV awareness campaign stands to last three months long.) But publicity and awareness don’t necessarily translate into informed decision-making power, which surveys say more than anything is what consumers want most out of this, and which surveys also say consumers are not getting amid the DTV conversion.

Panic at the voucher program for converter boxes?

There had been a long-touted voucher program, with more than a billion dollars allotted to fund coupons that would offset the costs of digital-to-analog converter boxes for eligible households. But among the very problems with this program, one very frightening problem has come to light: the coupons have an expiration date in May.

Consumers Union reported that the coupons in the voucher program have a 90-day expiration date from the date when the first coupons are mailed out by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the government agency tasked with administering the voucher program. With the first coupons going out in late February 2009, all of the coupons expire sometime in late May. Why Congress included an expiration date on the coupon program remains unclear, but what could be very clear is that the program that’s the lynchpin for helping consumers most could prove utterly useless in late 2008 and early 2009 when it’s most pressingly needed.

Incidentally, the head of the NTIA, Meredith Baker, has left the NTIA, and became the second NTIA head to leave the agency in five months (previous head John Kneuer left right before Thanksgiving 2007).

HD Gear

HD Gear

Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the trade lobby of commercial broadcasters, has been calling for digital converters to be sold in grocery stores to make digital converter box access easier for consumers. Whether or not this proposal will translate into tangible action remains to be seen.

Small broadcasters weigh in with a big lawsuit and a big problem

And the entire voucher program is facing a lawsuit, curiously enough, by broadcasters themselves. The Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) – an organization representing some 2,600 low-power TV stations – is suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over a ban of convertor boxes that don’t also allow for analog signals.

CBA member stations aren’t affected by the 2009 conversion; small broadcasters don’t have to convert to digital until the year 2012. But consumers who receive CBA-member TV signals may not realize that installing the converter boxes would have the unintended effect of blocking analog signals from still-analog low-power TV stations.

In other words, the entire converter box program, which was intended to help those people, might well have the ironic and unintended effect of shutting off television for millions of Americans. And while many people justifiably criticize TV as being a “vast wasteland” (to borrow Newton Minow’s famous phrase), most Americans still rely on TV as their main source of news, weather, and emergency information.

CBA Logo

CBA Logo

This is a particularly acute concern since CBA’s member stations address those audiences most likely to lose TV access as a result of the DTV conversion – rural communities, underserved urban communities, the elderly, and those communities that don’t speak English. A catch-22 thus ensues: If you get a convertor, you might lose TV by blocking your nearby small-power analog stations. If you don’t participate, you lose TV by not getting the big boys who will go all digital in 2009.

Calls for a DTV test market finally win muster, but is it too late?

For years, there had been calls, including by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, for a small-scale test of the DTV conversion to better understand the likely impact of the DTV conversion as currently set up. The calls went little heeded, but in early March 2008, FCC chair Kevin Martin – who previously dismissed requests for such a test as not having enough time to prove effective — has announced his willingness to pursue a test.

The calls are also being echoed in Congress on a bipartisan basis. In mid-March 2008, Florida Republican representative Cliff Stearns, a member of the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, has also gone on record saying he would like to see an advance test in place.

While it is heartening to see such calls for a test finally gain some serious momentum, one has to wonder: Why wait until 11 months before the nationwide DTV conversion is scheduled to take place to hold a test? And moreover, even if a test can be held, and reveals gaps in the implementation of the conversion, can action be taken in time to remedy those gaps?

10 months of DTV Tsunami “surprises” still await

All of the developments in this article have come to light just in the last two months. Few of them have been positive.

With ten months to remain before perhaps the most impactful technical change in the history of American television, and the conversion in the U.S. itself resembling a Keystone Kops film, what other surprises lie in wait? And, most crucially of all, can Americans respond in time?

Image Credits:
1. Converter Box
2. HD Gear
3. CBA Logo

Please feel free to comment.

The DTV Tsunami Approaches


The FCC has created an entire website devoted to DTV education

In an essay entitled “The Forthcoming DTV Tsunami”, I wrote about the possible social ramifications of the conversion from analog television to digital television (DTV) slated for February 18, 2009. I argued that the conversion was poised to become a disaster for the tens of millions of Americans who use and rely on over-the-air television and don’t have the money to get cable or satellite service, or buy a digital-ready TV set.

In the time since that essay, we now have some answers to some of the questions I raised. The resulting picture is crystallizing – and horrifying.

The Poor and The Needy

The most urgent need involves those Americans who use analog TV. There is a voucher program in place, where Congress has allotted $1 billion for vouchers to offset the cost of analog-to-digital converter boxes. The program launched on January 1, 2008, and the response has been brisk – requests for 1.9 million vouchers from a million-plus households were filed after the program’s launch. Even so, that’s still a small fraction of the 33.5 million coupons that Congress has promised to fund – assuming that such a number is sufficient.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced a series of educational workshops which the FCC said will “focus on communities that have been identified as being likely to be disproportionately impacted by the transition and least aware of it. These communities include seniors, minorities and non-English speakers, people with disabilities, low-income earners, and those living in rural areas.”

The workshops are all held in the FCC’s Washington DC headquarters and webcast via the FCC’s website – but needless to say, getting the money to fly to DC to attend the workshops, or even knowing to visit the FCC’s webcasts, are not terribly viable options, and fall dismally short.

Representative John Dingell (D-MI) described the stark details: “In 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 21 million homes – nearly one in five of all television-equipped households – rely on free, over-the-air broadcasts. Of these households, almost half have annual incomes of less than $30,000, and two-thirds are headed by either an individual over age 50 or a native Spanish speaker. Clearly, those expected to be most affected by the transition will also be the most difficult to reach.”

Ultimately, if these communities find out too late about what happens, they could – in the words of Ricardo Byrd, president of the National Association of Neighborhoods – suffer from “go black shock”, where TV service will simply “go black” after analog TV ends.

The Government Fingerpointing Begins

The result could be “the mother of all consumer backlashes”, to quote FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in testimony before Congress. And who specifically in the government would be the target of this collective rage? In other words, who’s in charge here?


FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has been a vocal critic of the U.S. Government’s lack of preparedness in the DTV transition.

The answer, according to GAO investigator Mark Goldstein: “It is pretty clear to us that there is no one in charge,” either within the FCC or the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the two agencies working on the conversion. Worse, FCC chair Kevin Martin acknowledged that “No formal plan is publicly available”, and the GAO echoed: “Despite efforts by the public and private sectors and ongoing coordination, we found that no comprehensive plan for the transition exists.” Thus, there’s no way to gauge success formally.

There are attempts by some government officials to begin to make such a gauge. FCC Commissioner Copps has called for a trial run of the DTV conversion in a test community to see what would happen. But Copps’ call has attracted little interest among FCC staff or potentially affected communities. That’s not much of a surprise: Copps’ call is reminiscent of an actual trial run, Operation Dark Winter, which in June 2001 tested the U.S. government’s response to a mock biowarfare attack, and discovered the government was swiftly overmatched (Operation Dark Winter was called off after four days due to exhaustion of the participants).

Worse still, there’s precious little in the way of government money allotted for educational efforts – about $2.5 million for an educational campaign addressing mostly America’s hardest-to-reach populations. That could be increased to as much as $20 million within the 2008 Bush Administration budget, but it’s still a pittance by government and international standards.

The Broadcasters’ Asinine Response

But, we’re told, industry help is supposedly on the way. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the commercial broadcasters’ lobby, have promised $700 million worth of advertising devoting time to public service announcements (PSAs) about the DTV transition. Supposedly, the NAB has gone beyond, to make as a goal “98 billion impressions as part of its campaign, amounting to 300 impressions per person in the U.S.”

There are some problems with this campaign: Of the six tactics articulated by the NAB to raise public awareness, five don’t use the broadcast TV medium itself and are instead cheap measures like establishing a speaker bureau, making Spanish-English websites, and setting up a mobile truck resembling a large-sized TV.

The NAB’s tactic involving TV is using PSAs. But as a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation learned, PSAs run most often in the overnight hours (midnight to 6am) and only 13% of PSAs actually run during the most-widely-watched primetime hours between 8pm and 11pm.

And many of the PSAs which have aired tend to imply that the burden of action falls predominantly on the viewer or consumer. And the suggested action mentioned is to encourage the viewer to visit a website (not an option for the poor on the other side of the digital divide) or call a phone number (not an option for non-English speakers).


The National Association of Broadcasters has sent its DTV education campaign on the road in the form of its “Trekker” truck

And the efforts to raise public awareness, which all sides agree are succeeding however sporadically, might be failing in raising public knowledge. A January 2008 survey by Consumers Union found “an awful lot of faulty information” among the public about the DTV transition. Even the vaunted government converter box voucher program was unknown by 73% of those surveyed who actually planned to get a converter box.

Perhaps most stunning of all, another survey by the Consumer Electronics Association said that 22% of analog TV owners plan to “do nothing” when the conversion occurs.

DTV Policy by Rolling Dice

To quote FCC Commissioner Copps again: “We’re going to pull the [DTV conversion] switch and pray to the Lord that everything works out fine.” Copps also said: “Pulling the switch on stations all across the land at one and the same time in February 2009 is going to be a real throw of the dice.”

In rolling the DTV policy dice, we might just get lucky and everything will end up fine. But signs strongly suggest that there aren’t many winning rolls left, and the dice seem to be increasingly loaded against the public.

Image Credits:


2. Michael Copps

3. NAB Trekker

Please feel free to comment.

The Forthcoming DTV Tsunami

The end of analog TV

2009: The end of analog TV

On Wednesday, February 18, 2009, all analog over-the-air TV broadcasting in the United States ceases, and will be replaced with an all-digital broadcasting setup. The ostensible reason for this conversion to digital television (DTV) is to improve television. With freed television spectrum resulting from the conversion, public safety communications can be increased and improved, more TV channels can be created, and picture quality can improve.

But for current TV viewers, this means that if you use an antenna to get television, you will need a new TV set, or some other digital television source (like cable or satellite), or a digital converter box — or your TV set goes dark, permanently.

The number of people potentially affected is considerable. Estimates say about 17% of Americans (roughly 51 million people) still get television through over-the-air analog signals. In Chicago, where I live, the number is about 21% of Chicago residents, according to a 2003 profile in the journal Media Week – roughly 630,000 people in a city of nearly 3 million people.

It stands to reason that many of those who still use analog TV can’t subscribe to a cable or satellite service simply because they are among the American poor or are on fixed or stagnating incomes, and understandably can’t afford to subscribe. For that same reason, they probably can’t afford to buy a new digital-ready TV set.

The remaining option is to get a digital converter box. And indeed some efforts to help are crystallizing. Congress has allotted about $1 billion to provide vouchers redeemable for converter boxes. Each American household can claim up to two $40 vouchers to offset the costs for converter boxes, which can be purchased in retail stores.

For the moment, it appears the vouchers will not cover the cost of converter boxes. Digital Streams, the manufacturer of the first government-approved converter boxes, has announced a suggested retail price of $69.99 per box. Granted, improved technology may over time lower the prices of converter boxes enough before DTV Doomsday to improve the likelihood of converter box affordability. But many questions arise: What assurances are there that retailers won’t take advantage of a guaranteed market and raise the price of converter boxes? Or even if prices remain low, are retailers prepared for what could be a marked upsurge of millions of potentially desperate customers?

The questions continue. Are people who need digital converter boxes prepared to deal with many folks in similarly dire straits, like taking time off from work to wait in massive lines? In the case of infirm or elderly individuals who can’t leave their homes, or rural communities who may not live near by any big name retailers, or Americans who don’t speak English, or people without any technical skills — what provisions are being made for them?

In urban communities like Chicago, there have been serious examples of local public policy failures, like the infamous 1995 Chicago heat wave. As chronicled in Eric Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave, neglectful public policy decisions exacerbated that disaster in which some 800 people died. For the DTV transition, it’s unclear what local provisions are being set up, or how federal and local authorities would cooperate, or whether or not authorities at all levels can coordinate matters before DTV Doomsday. The end result could be a lot of after-the-fact fingerpointing with little in the way to actually help people.

All of this of course assumes that people learn about the conversion in time and can act with ample time. But levels of public awareness about the DTV transition are dismal – surveys say that anywhere from 60% to 90% of Americans, depending on the survey, have no awareness of the DTV transition.

A new digital divide

The potential for a new digital divide attenuates DTV’s potential for human progress

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the main trade lobby of U.S. commercial broadcasters, has promised to devote some $700 million dollars worth of broadcast airtime to public service announcements to inform Americans of the DTV transition.

Magnanimous though this might sound, the NAB has simultaneously been fiercely resisting efforts in Congress to pass laws which would mandate specific educational requirements from TV broadcasters. But promises are one thing; policies are another. And considering that U.S. media companies garner some $70 billion annually from ads, this promised-but-as-yet-undelivered effort amounts to a one-time sacrifice of about one percent of commercial broadcasters’ revenue.

Nevertheless, the NAB has been losing the fight; support is strong in Congress for a law with more precise mandates, though such laws can and have been watered down and sometimes avoided. Even if a law passes and is effective, could it be a matter of too little too late?

To say the least, everything I’ve described drips with pessimism. Small wonder that FCC Commissioner Michael Copps described the DTV transition as a forthcoming “train wreck”, while his FCC colleague Jonathan Adelstein has termed it a “tsunami”.

But it’s entirely possible that it could all end up just fine. Everyone could find out in time, even who needs help gets it, and a presumed DTV Doomsday — complete with long lines and street riots and looting and other images of unrest — could be averted. But a lot would have to happen before February 18, 2009 to avert this disaster, or a manifold compounding of disasters, of which February 18, 2009 could be just the beginning.

For example, Deaf communities have petitioned the FCC complaining that “reports of significant technical difficulties with the pass through and display of closed captioning [in DTV] are becoming rampant”, according to an August 2007 FCC filing by the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology.

Then there’s Puerto Rico, where the situation is worse still. More than half of all of Puerto Rican TV viewers use analog over-the-air signals, with fewer options available for accommodations than in the States, according to Puerto Rico’s Telecommunications Regulatory Board.

Some cynics might say: With the dismal state of TV, many people may benefit without their TVs. But despite the ascendancy of the internet as a source of news and information, most Americans still use television and newspapers for their news and information. But with millions, perhaps tens of millions, affected in the wake of a possible fiasco, DTV Doomsday and its ongoing aftermath could consign millions of Americans into a media black hole, perhaps abandoned with little additional relief. We could see the digital divide skyrocket, and escalate ongoing trends where the U.S. is becoming a Third World country, and where having a TV set would be a sign that you’re part of the privileged classes.

Echoes of Hurricane Katrina come to mind. The effective destruction of an American city was bad enough, but a half million displaced persons still sit with little aid and are unable to return to the Gulf Coast more than two years after the hurricanes, as chronicled by the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Poor people in the future might remember the time when they too had TV.

The DTV transition

The DTV transition: Trainwreck? Tsunami?

If there is a silver lining to the DTV conversion, it is that the potential for awareness and popular involvement on media-related issues could dramatically increase. In recent years, more Americans have entered the media policy arena, and they’ve been making a difference. Where three million people commented to the FCC on its controversial media ownership rewrite in 2003 (which successfully blocked an FCC vote), we could be seeing more than ten times that number possibly enter the arena. Will it be enough? Can it make a difference? The greater the involvement and the earlier people get involved, the better the chances in the end.

Image Credits:
1. 2009: The end of analog TV
2. The potential for a new digital divide attenuates DTV’s potential for human progress
3. The DTV transition: Trainwreck? Tsunami?

Please feel free to comment.