At-risk groups seem better prepared for DTV switch

by Dan Emerson, Finance and Commerce

This time for sure: U.S. television stations are scheduled to switch off their analog transmitters and go all-digital on Friday, June 12.

That was actually supposed to happen in February, but the switchover was delayed by President Obama and the U.S. Congress, giving viewers across the United States more preparation time. And in large part, the delay seems to have worked.

“Folks seem to be generally more prepared than they were in February,” said Mark Lloyd, vice president for strategic initiatives with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

"That's because of the ability of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to send out more coupons, and manufacturers stepping up and putting more converter boxes on shelves.”

The release of economic stimulus funds enabled the NTIA to print and send out more coupons for the purchase of digital-converter boxes. Earlier in the year, there had been a waiting list for coupons, because not enough had been made available, Lloyd said.

“Some of the people who had been requesting coupons weren't going to get them until after the Feb. 17 deadline. That was one thing that confirmed the need for a delay” from the original date.

Also, the “soft tests” – in which TV stations around the country have temporarily switched off their analog signals – have “encouraged people to begin taking this more seriously,” Lloyd noted.

The original 2006 legislation gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to terminate analog licenses for full-power television stations and reclaim the spectrum for public safety and commercial wireless broadband services.

By the end of the transition, all digital television transmissions will be in the spectrum currently occupied by TV channels 2 through 51 — the so-called “core” TV spectrum. Television channels 52 through 69 in the 700 MHz band will be cleared for wireless communications.

Even though the date was pushed back, some TV stations went ahead with the switch in February. One of them was WUCW, the CW station in Minneapolis-St. Paul. General manager Joe Tracy said the station received only about a dozen calls from viewers after making the switch.

Because the Twin Cities ranks second in the nation in the number of TV households who receive signals “over the air,” Minneapolis-St. Paul was considered one of seven “at-risk” metro areas. LCCREF partnered with local agencies to open DTV assistance centers in the seven metro areas, which also include Atlanta, Detroit, Portland, San Antonio, San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland, and Seattle-Tacoma.

Locally, centers were opened by the Lao Assistance Center in North Minneapolis and The Main Street Project in South Minneapolis. The groups have been conducting DTV outreach and training within the Southeast Asian and Latino communities.

One of their tasks was helping people apply for the converter box discount coupons, offered by the federal government.

The FCC has commissioned the Minneapolis-based Geek Squad to help viewers get ready for the switch. From May 27 through June 30, TV viewers in 31 states who are unable to install converter boxes they've purchased can receive free installation by Geek Squad Home Theater Installers. The FCC is reimbursing the Geek Squad for the installation costs, said company spokesperson Paula Baldwin.

The FCC said the program is focused on reaching “at risk” households – low-income consumers, minority communities, non-English speaking consumers, senior citizens, consumers living in rural areas or on tribal lands, and consumers with disabilities.

Minnesota broadcasters have been running digital-changeover reminders in the months leading up to the changeover. The latest data from Nielsen Media Research estimates that fewer than 2.7 million households nationwide are still unprepared, said Jim Dubois, president of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association.

“So, that indicates many of the folks who had not gotten the message on Feb. 17 have now gotten it. There is still some education that needs to be done; some people still need to order converter-box coupons and there are specific issues with reception” among people who aren't sure how to connect their boxes.

While elderly Americans “are much better prepared than they were before … we're still looking at disparities within ethnic groups, particularly African-Americans,” Lloyd said. “Some of that is due to families not being able to afford the $40 for a converter box, and also some doubt about whether this transition is actually going to occur.”

For broadcasters, Dubois said, the prospect of losing viewers who are not digital-ready “has certainly been a concern, but it appears broadcasters have done a good job making viewers aware of the transition and what they need to do. Hopefully the impact on viewership will be minimal.”

WCCO, which covers most of Minnesota with its TV signal, has been focusing most of its recent, informational efforts on the areas served by its outstate antenna, located in the Alexandria area, said station spokesperson Kiki Rosatti.

“There is a larger population in Greater Minnesota that doesn't have cable TV.”

WCCO conducted the latest of several “soft” tests on May 21; the station only received one local phone call from a concerned viewer, and only a “very small number” statewide, said Gary Kroger, director of engineering and operations. “Based on the numbers we're received from the FCC we get the sense that we're down into the 3 percent range of households that aren't ready,” Kroger said.

“But we hate to have anybody lose a service they count on. Hopefully, between now and June 12, with more notices and more media attention paid, the remaining people will find a way to get a DTV signal into their homes. A number of volunteer organizations are coming out to help people in their homes.”

One of those is the Mainstreet Project, which estimates it has helped 8,900 people in the Twin Cities, either by assisting them in getting coupons, or helping connect converter boxes, said spokesperson Amalia Deloney. On April 17, a national “DTV Day of Action,” Mainstreet held an event at the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street, where about 200 families – most of them immigrants – received coupons or other assistance.

Mainstreet also set up a website, www.donateDTV.com, asking anyone with extra converter boxes to donate them to families in need. So far, it has received about 350 donated boxes from around the U.S., Deloney said. As part of its effort to reach minority and low-income families, Mainstreet is planning a “Goodbye to Analog” event June 12 at Powderhorn Park, as a final effort to help families get coupons and technical assistance.

article originally published at Finance and Commerce.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey