Digital TV switch to generate ad blitz

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News about digital conversion will generate an ad blitz

October 18, 2007|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

In an election year - especially a presidential year - most of us can expect an avalanche of TV advertising. But in 2008, the candidates may be competing for air time with the very broadcasters who carry their ads.

That's because broadcasters are desperate to get their message out soon enough to prevent an election year train wreck: that millions of TVs will go dark in 16 months unless viewers replace them or buy converters to equip them for digital broadcasting.

With almost half the population unaware of the switch, the National Association of Broadcasters this week announced plans to spend almost $700 million on an advertising blitz to tell Americans what's about to happen - and persuade them that it's for their own good.

FOR THE RECORD - The date of the switchover to digital television broadcasts in Mike Himowitz's technology column yesterday was incomplete. Broadcasters will turn off their analog transmitters Feb. 17, 2009.
The Sun regrets the error.

It's a tough sell. Still, if you receive TV over the airwaves with an antenna - as opposed to cable or satellite service - start paying attention. More immediately, if you buy a new set this holiday season, make sure it's equipped to receive the new digital signals. This is also a good time to figure out whether your existing sets, even recent purchases, will work after the digital tsunami strikes.

Congress has told broadcasters to turn off the over-the-air, analog transmitters they've used for more than half a century on Feb. 17. They'll now rely solely on new digital transmitters whose signals aren't compatible with the tuners in traditional TVs without converter boxes.

These include millions of analog-only sets that consumers bought over the last few years, unaware that they were already on the road to Palookaville.

The broadcasters' PR strategy includes thousands of public service commercials, annoying "crawlers" that inch across the bottom of the screen during regular programs, educational programming, and even a traveling road show.

Altogether, NAB expects to create 98 billion "viewer impressions," an onslaught that may rival campaign pitches for sheer annoyance.

This is separate from the cable industry's $200 million program that aims to convince disgusted over-the-air customers that it's now worth their money to hook up to cable.

Unfortunately, critics say, the government isn't doing much on its end. Out of $1.5 billion appropriated for converter box subsidies, the government has allocated only $5 million for education - a situation that drew bipartisan ire at congressional hearings yesterday.

There will certainly be plenty of irate viewers to go around, considering that that government's program to provide every household $40 vouchers to defray the cost of up to two converters won't come close to the total cost of switching.

The converter boxes will cost $50 to $80 each. Many viewers may need new antennae, too. Even if the cost won't dent their retirement accounts, they will still have to go through the hassle of buying converters, hooking them up and possibly learning - as I did when I reviewed a digital TV - that they can't get all the channels they were accustomed to receiving.

For local TV stations, the stakes are tremendous. Once they get past the switchover, the new system will allow them to broadcast on three or four channels simultaneously, including high-definition broadcasts. That's an upside for viewers, too: They will also get an improved picture, even without high-definition sets.

Not predictable

But if the advertising blitz fails and enough Americans get riled up just before the election, Congress might be tempted to postpone the scheme. At the very least, broadcasters could wind up losing disgusted analog viewers to cable networks and online diversions.

Given the swirl of political and economic variables, there's no way to predict the outcome. In fact, this is uncharted territory. Never before has the government, by simple fiat, made such a reliable and important technology obsolete overnight - and with no demand for the change from consumers.

Most immediately at risk are viewers in 20 million American households who rely solely on free, over-the-air broadcasts.

1 household in 5

That's roughly 1 household out of 5. They are disproportionately occupied by the poor, who can't afford cable, and by the elderly, who vote in droves and know enough to punish those who've done them wrong.

In fact, the only reason why lawmakers who set this scheme in motion 11 years ago haven't already been tarred and feathered is that 80 percent of TV households get their broadcasts from cable or satellite companies. Those carriers will convert the new digital broadcasts for their customers' analog sets - at least for the time being.

Even among cable households, the NAB says, almost 15 million have second, third or fourth sets in bedrooms and kitchens that get their broadcasts over the air. Those sets will have to be replaced or converted, too.

Yesterday, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which will administer the $40 voucher program, released a few details - including, the award of a $120 million contract with International Business Machines Corp. to manage the program.

Officials said applications for vouchers will be available online, by phone or mail, as well as through many public libraries whose staff will be trained to help applicants fill them out.

For more information, you can visit the following Web sites:

Digital TV Transition Coalition: www.dtvtransition.org

NTIA Coupon Program: www.ntia.doc.gov/dtvcoupon/

NAB Digital Transition Page: www.dtvanswers.com

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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