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FCC Requirements Aimed at Smooth DTV Transition

Next February, when analog television broadcasts disappear, the government is determined that the American public won't be left in the dark.

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday announced requirements for broadcasters to air informational messages to educate viewers about the digital television (DTV) transition, taking effect Feb. 17, 2009.

The Commission is also considering starting the changeover early in a few test markets to ensure that the nationwide transition goes smoothly.

The requirements offer broadcasters the flexibility they had been demanding in deploying the consumer outreach campaigns. After a hard-fought battle to convince the FCC that the content and scheduling of the educational messages must be left up to the individual broadcasters, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) praised the announcement yesterday.

"It's probably the most monumental education effort done by broadcasters on behalf of [consumers] since color," NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton told InternetNews.com. "We've got one chance to get this right. Failure is not an option."

The FCC's order gives broadcasters the choice between three sets of educational requirements, though the third is only available to noncommercial broadcasters.

Both of the first two options require broadcasters to run a certain number of public-service announcements (PSA)s and text crawls alerting viewers that analog signals will not be transmitted after Feb. 17, so that the estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of U.S. households that are still broadcast-only will need to take some action to avoid a blackout.

By the first option, broadcasters must air one PSA and one text crawl every six hours until April 1. Then they must run two of each message every quarter day; after Oct. 1, the quarter-day requirement increases to three of each message.

The second option, which was submitted by the NAB, offers broadcasters much more flexibility in how they present the messages. Instead of mandating a set number of placements at certain times of the day, the second option requires broadcasters to meet an average number of messages per week, excluding those aired between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Wharton believes that most broadcasters will choose the second plan because it allows them to tailor their messaging to the unique conditions of their markets.

"The issue here is if you do the one-size-fits-all program or if you give broadcasters a modicum of flexibility," he said. "It's a good, reasonable compromise."

Wharton said that the education campaign will carry a price tag of more than $1 billion for television broadcasters, most of which will come from lost advertising revenues due to airing the PSAs.

"There's a huge give on our part," he said, though "it's in our own interest to educate the public on this program."

Many broadcasters have already aired spots about the digital transition, directing viewers to the DTV.gov informational Web site, but they have all been voluntary. Some stations have also aired longer-format programs discussing the transition, but many more will be coming.

"You'd almost have to live in a cave for the next year not to see these spots," Wharton said.

After the requirements were announced, Commissioner Michael Copps wrote a letter to Chairman Kevin Martin urging the trial period of the conversion in a few test markets in advance of the nationwide rollout to ensure that the technical disruptions are kept to a minimum.

"Broadway shows open on the road to work out the kinks before opening night," he wrote. "The DTV transition deserves no less." Copps cited the more gradual approach that other countries have taken in their digital conversions.

Martin said that he supported the use of test markets, though he warned of the technical and logistical challenges a trial program would face.

Wharton said that the NAB was still evaluating Copps' proposal, and had not yet formed a position.

The FCC is in the late stages of an auction selling the spectrum that will be freed up by the digital conversion. Telecommunications companies across the country have already bid nearly $20 billion dollars on the different blocks of the 700 Mhz spectrum to build advanced wireless networks and improve the quality of existing services.