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FCC Fears Mandatory Digital Switch Will Be Messy

October 15, 2008

Federal communications official said on Tuesday they expect the pending mandatory switch of all U.S. televisions to digital to be messy, urging broadcasters to step up local efforts to educate the public.

Robert McDowell, a Republican on the five-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said broadcasters have the most to lose if viewers’ screens fade to black when analog signals are turned off. He is urging broadcasters to tailor informational campaigns to local markets.

The switch to digital was ordered by Congress to free up public airwaves for other uses, such as for police and fire departments.

The change will happen on February 17, 2009.

McDowell said despite a wide-ranging education campaign by the government and broadcasters, consumers are likely to face glitches.

“The transition will be messy … but we will get through it,” he said.

The Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog group, said analog only TV sets are found in about 15 percent of U.S. households and viewers could risk their screens going black as analog signals are turned off.

Owners of analog televisions must buy a TV converter box to receive a digital signal.

According to the FCC, the digital transition will not impact TV sets that are connected to cable service.

McDowell said broadcasters should target their advertising based on the technical needs of local markets. In some markets, for example, consumers are more likely to require new antennas for their converter boxes to work, he said.

The GAO said last month that regulators are offering consumers $40 coupons to help pay for converter boxes, but have no plan to manage an anticipated last-minute frenzy of consumer demand for the coupons.

The major networks, such as Walt Disney Co’s ABC, General Electric’s NBC, and CBS Corp own some local stations, usually in big markets.

Local affiliates are owned by a host of other companies like Hearst-Argyle Television, Inc, McClatchy Co and the Washington Post.

Commissioners from the FCC are traveling the country to educate local officials and broadcasters about the switch. McDowell just returned from Montana, Oklahoma and Alaska.

Regulators are unprepared for an expected surge in demand for government help from consumers needing to switch, the GAO report said.

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