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After Delays, Digital Television Conversion is Complete

June 12, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Analysts examine the road to digital television conversion and assess the successes and drawbacks involved in the change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After delays and problems, the digital
television conversion will soon be complete. Jeffrey Brown has our “Media
Unit” update.

MAN: You have this television right here?

Yes, it’s over there.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the final days of analog television
approached, Rebecca Francis got some much-needed help from AmeriCorps
volunteers to make sure she wouldn’t be left behind.

WOMAN: I am getting a much
clearer picture.

MAN: Yes.


JEFFREY BROWN: The nation’s conversion to digital TV will be
complete by 12:01 tomorrow morning. At a recent press conference, FCC
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was relieved the end was in sight.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN, commissioner, Federal Communications
Commission: If the DTV transition were a NASCAR race, six months ago, we were
lagging behind, hitting walls, crashing in burning. Since then, we have got a
pit stop, a refueling from the administration and Congress. We have got a new
driver, rebuilt the engine, and empowered the pit crew. Today, we’re zooming
along and about to see the checkered flag.

JEFFREY BROWN: The promise of the move to digital — which
began in the 1980s — was enhanced images and sound and the ability for TV
stations to offer more channels with the kind of local and niche content often
missing from public airwaves. In addition, the transition was intended to clear
airwaves for emergency communications services and other new communications,
like mobile Internet services. But there were big challenges. TV stations had
to convert their equipment. Many have done so well in advance of tonight’s
deadline. Consumers had three options: Use a digital converter box to get a
signal on their older analog sets, subscribe to cable or satellite TV, or buy a
new set with digital tuners built in.

ANNOUNCER: If you watch antenna TV, get a new digital set or
a converter box, like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: After a public education campaign by
government and others and a program to issue coupons for converter boxes, most
Americans made the switch. But, according to Nielsen, 2.8 million aren’t ready.
Earlier this week at the White House, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke raised concerns.

GARY LOCKE, Commerce secretary: We want to make sure that
families are able to not only receive their favorite programming, but, more
importantly, to receive news broadcasts of emergency alerts, impending storms,
and any other emergency situation within their community. It’s very important
that communities and people throughout our nation have the information they
need to respond in times of emergencies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even today, staffers at the Federal
Communications Commission’s Washington
command center continued to help people with last-minute concerns. The
conversion was originally set for February, but problems with the government’s
plan and consumer confusion forced officials to push it back. This time, they
say, it’s for real and those without the proper equipment will see their
favorite channel turn an empty blue.

The road to digital

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at all this now with Reed Hundt,chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the mid-1990s, andJonathan Collegio, vice president of digital transition for the NationalAssociation of Broadcasters. Welcome to both of you.

Jonathan Collegio, what do we know about the people who havenot may the conversion yet? Who are they? Where are they? How worried are we?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO, vice president, digital transition,National Association of Broadcasters: As of last Friday, about 1.7 milliontelevision viewers had not taken any action toward the digital televisiontransition. We expect that many of those folks would have taken action in thelast week. However, we know that a good proportion of them are very, veryresistant to taking the action. Some of the folks may just choose to do withouttelevision for a while. So, we will see what happens. So far, televisionstations across the country have been receiving between about 100 and 125telephone calls, which is right about what our expectations have been.

JEFFREY BROWN: And every time we look at this, we get peoplewriting into us afterwards, complaining, saying that they have made theconversion, but the signal is no better than it was before. What is theexplanation?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Well, what we have seen in our surveys isthat, actually, 75 percent of viewers who have made the transition reportbetter pictures, more reception, actually being able to get more channels. Ithink that what -- what you are seeing is probably some of the folks on thefringes who are losing reception are a little bit angrier. And those are thefolks who are a little more prone to complain.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, Reed Hundt, I want to look atsome larger context here, because, as I recall, this all started as -- out of afear of Japanese competition in the '80s, correct? What was the -- what was thebig idea? And what has been accomplished?

REED HUNDT, former chairman, Federal CommunicationsCommission: Well, I think, to be honest, very, very little has beenaccomplished. And the big idea is an idea that long ago evaporated. Theoriginal notion 20 years ago is that America would have a TVmanufacturing industry that would be able to be geared up to deliver a newsignal over the air. Before the broadcast surge really made much progress withthat, that industry moved overseas. Now China is the number-one center formanufacture of TVs in the world. And, over the years since then, the broadcastindustry has fought to postpone and postpone and postpone this conversion. Andnow that it's actually happening, 98 percent of Americans won't even notice,because they are cable subscribers or satellite subscribers or Internet users.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what was -- what was this all about?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Twenty million households at thebeginning of the transition, when we started keeping track in 2006, on our wayto the transition in February -- what was February 17, 2009, had to make theupgrade. What we know is that most people that are making the transition aregetting a lot of benefits from this. They are getting crystal-clear picturesand sound that you can't get in analog, more television channels throughmulticasting, as well as free high-definition broadcasts in every single marketin the country. Now, that didn't exist 10 years ago. That didn't really evenexist five years ago. And it is a benefit that folks can enjoy anywhere forfree. All they need is an antenna and an HD television set. So, there are a lotof benefits for viewers out there. And I think that you may see, with theeconomy the way it is, some shift back to over-the-air, instead of those cableand satellite bills.

'A 20th century story'

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you don't deny most of that, I guess.But is the issue -- I mean, the interesting thing, I guess, when I think backto these discussions, is that the TV was going to become, like, the centraltechnological place in our lives, right? Is that what you are saying didn'thappen, or...

REED HUNDT: Over-the-air broadcast was the most importantmedium in the world, and certainly in the United States for the last half ofthe 20th century. But it's definitely a 20th century story, and not a 21stcentury story. The broadcast industry, for years, knew that it had to evolveits business model. But it's pretty analogous to General Motors or some of theother sad stories we see, where there was postponement after postponement afterpostponement sought by the people in the industry. And the result is that thevalue proposition, the center of gravity for the media switched to theInternet, switched to mobile devices. People now get all the same informationon a mobile device that they could have formally gotten on broadcast TV. Andthen they can Twitter on it as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, technology did a kind of end run, you aresuggesting, around the television set that we're all familiar with?

REED HUNDT: Technology just kept moving on, while thelobbying battle got stuck in a rut for 20 years. And now we're having atransition from something to nothing that really matters.

The future of the TV set

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I assume you want to push back on this.I mean, what -- what do you see? What is the role of the television set? I knowwe sit down and watch television programs, but what is the television set inour lives today, or looking forward, now that we have made this conversion?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: What I would hate to do is make aprediction of what the technology is going to look like 20 years ago, because alot of folks, back in the '80s, thought that they knew what the future wasgoing to look like, and they got it wrong. What we know now is that there's ahuge movement, like he said, toward handheld devices. In Washington, D.C.,this summer, seven television stations are actually going to begin anexperiment on mobile broadcast television on handheld devices. This is a hugestep forward. It's going to be available for consumers in the -- in the firstquarter of 2010. But there's definitely this push toward -- toward mobilehandheld devices, getting -- being able to get your local news as you are goinghome from work, that type of thing. There's a lot of -- there -- there are alot of opportunities there. I just wouldn't want to try to predict what the --you know, what technology is going to look like in 2029.

JEFFREY BROWN: But just -- excuse me -- just to be clear, sothat those handhelds, the connection to the set in our homes is what?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Oh, it's still there. I mean, we knowthat in the last -- 112 (sic) digital television sets have been sold, accordingto the Consumer Electronics Association, more than half of those in the lasttwo years. So, folks still place a very, very high importance on their -- on theirtelevision in their homes. But what we will start seeing are mobile deviceslike this, where you are actually able to pick up local broadcasts on a mobilehandheld device. If it's popular in Washington, D.C., you could see them in cellphones, you could see them in iPods, and all kinds of other devices as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have watched the policy and otherdebates for years now. What kind of future do you see? What is the next stepfor the television set and this kind of technology?

REED HUNDT: We're in complete agreement. A cool thing is tohave over-the-air broadcasts go to cell phones. More chips have been sold in Chinafor the receipt of over-the-air broadcasts on cell phones than the total numberof iPhones sold in the world. But, again, my only point is, that's alreadyhappened in China.And, here in the United States, this is a prototype that we'relooking at today. We need to get our industries in every sector on the cuttingedge of technology change. And, frankly, this delay, delay, delayed transitionfrom analog TV is a sad story in American policy, not a great story.

Missing the deadline

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime -- I want to come back to thedeadline here, before we go -- people who missed this deadline, they're notdone forever, right? I mean, they can still go get their converter box? What --what do people do if they are suddenly watching us, and afraid they won't haveus tomorrow?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Yes, a lot of folks...

JEFFREY BROWN: Or Monday, since we're not on tomorrow.

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: That's true. A lot of folks are going tofigure out that they didn't make the upgrade. And they are going to go to theirconsumer electronics retailer tomorrow, make the upgrade. One thing that isgoing to happen today is, a lot of folks -- because not all the televisionstations are going digital at the same times, folks are going to have tore-scan their equipment more than once in order to continue getting all thechannels out there. We tend to think that that is the number-one reason forthese calls that the television stations and that the FCC call center aregetting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Re-scan means?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: Re-scan going to your -- the menu optionon your converter box or your television set, doing an autoscan to make surethat, if the television channel number changed, you would still be able to pickit up.

JEFFREY BROWN: And those with their antennas might be doingsome adjusting, too?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: That's the case, too. I mean, folks thatlive on the -- on kind of the fringe areas of a designated market area may seesome change. Some folks may have to go from indoor antennas to outdoorantennas. But I will tell you what. I mean, when I went from analog to digitalat my house in Arlington, Virginia, I literally quintupled the number of freechannels that I was able to receive. And we're seeing that in the data. We'reseeing that in the survey, with three out of four people saying that they aregetting better reception and more channels.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We willleave it there. Jonathan Collegio and Reed Hundt, thank you, both, very much.


REED HUNDT: Thank you.