The DTV Tsunami Approaches
By Mitchell Szczepanczyk
(repost from FlowTV)
The FCC has created an entire website devoted to DTV education
In an essay entitled â€śThe Forthcoming DTV Tsunamiâ€ť, 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 donâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ requests for 1.9 million vouchers from a million-plus households were filed after the programâ€™s launch. Even so, thatâ€™s still a small fraction of the 33.5 million coupons that Congress has promised to fund â€“ 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 â€śfocus 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.â€ť
The workshops are all held in the FCCâ€™s Washington DC headquarters and webcast via the FCCâ€™s website â€“ but needless to say, getting the money to fly to DC to attend the workshops, or even knowing to visit the FCCâ€™s webcasts, are not terribly viable options, and fall dismally short.
Representative John Dingell (D-MI) described the stark details: â€śIn 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 21 million homes â€“ nearly one in five of all television-equipped households â€“ 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.â€ť
Ultimately, if these communities find out too late about what happens, they could â€“ in the words of Ricardo Byrd, president of the National Association of Neighborhoods â€“ suffer from â€śgo black shockâ€ť, where TV service will simply â€śgo blackâ€ť after analog TV ends.
The Government Fingerpointing Begins
The result could be â€śthe mother of all consumer backlashesâ€ť, 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, whoâ€™s in charge here?
The answer, according to GAO investigator Mark Goldstein: â€śIt is pretty clear to us that there is no one in charge,â€ť 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 â€śNo formal plan is publicly availableâ€ť, and the GAO echoed: â€śDespite efforts by the public and private sectors and ongoing coordination, we found that no comprehensive plan for the transition exists.â€ť Thus, thereâ€™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 Coppsâ€™ call has attracted little interest among FCC staff or potentially affected communities. Thatâ€™s not much of a surprise: Coppsâ€™ call is reminiscent of an actual trial run, Operation Dark Winter, which in June 2001 tested the U.S. governmentâ€™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, thereâ€™s precious little in the way of government money allotted for educational efforts â€“ about $2.5 million for an educational campaign addressing mostly Americaâ€™s hardest-to-reach populations. That could be increased to as much as $20 million within the 2008 Bush Administration budget, but itâ€™s still a pittance by government and international standards.
The Broadcastersâ€™ Asinine Response
But, weâ€™re told, industry help is supposedly on the way. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the commercial broadcastersâ€™ 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 â€ś98 billion impressions as part of its campaign, amounting to 300 impressions per person in the U.S.â€ť
There are some problems with this campaign: Of the six tactics articulated by the NAB to raise public awareness, five donâ€™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 NABâ€™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).
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 â€śan awful lot of faulty informationâ€ť 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 â€śdo nothingâ€ť when the conversion occurs.
DTV Policy by Rolling Dice
To quote FCC Commissioner Copps again: â€śWeâ€™re going to pull the [DTV conversion] switch and pray to the Lord that everything works out fine.â€ť Copps also said: â€śPulling 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.â€ť
In rolling the DTV policy dice, we might just get lucky and everything will end up fine. But signs strongly suggest that there arenâ€™t many winning rolls left, and the dice seem to be increasingly loaded against the public.
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