In the past two weeks, both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee have held additional oversight hearings concerning the progress the government has made on the upcoming Digital Television (DTV) transition. The committees sought comment from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and industry groups on the state of the DTV converter box program, the success of the ongoing DTV education campaign and the results of the trial digital changeover that occurred in Wilmington, NC, earlier this month. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and Acting Assistant Secretary Meredith Baker, head of NTIA, testified at both hearings, along with representatives from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), broadcasters, community groups, retailers, electronics manufacturers and television program developers.

Highlights included:

  • The general consensus on Capitol Hill was that the Wilmington trial was successful—for Wilmington. Both Democrats and Republicans, however, questioned whether the results of that test can be used to predict what will happen on February 17, 2009. At a minimum, both parties noted that the 2,000+ calls concerning problems in Wilmington equate to millions of calls nationwide next February. Congress remains concerned that the nation is woefully unprepared for the problems that will result from the transition.
  • With respect to NTIA, members on both sides of the aisle are concerned that the agency is not prepared for an expected ramp-up in converter box coupon requests late this year and into January and February of 2009. Assistant Secretary Baker assured the Committees that NTIA was being proactive to address the concern, but admitted that the agency needs additional administrative funds to ensure the stability of the coupon program. Members also questioned Assistant Secretary Baker on why retailers remain reluctant to stock lower-cost converter boxes, namely ones that retail for $40 rather than the $60 boxes found in most stores.
  • FCC and NTIA identified two recurring problems from Wilmington that they intend to address through future education and technical efforts.
    • The first problem involved technical issues consumers had with the converter boxes themselves. Both agencies are revising their education materials to speak to the need to properly connect an antenna to the converter box and the need to conduct a channel scan on the box on February 18, 2009. NTIA is developing new messaging materials that encourage consumers to "apply, buy and try"—apply for a coupon, buy a box and try the box before next February. The FCC intends to enlist community groups throughout the country to assist consumers with converter box technical issues on the days surrounding the transition, just as the fire department did in Wilmington during its changeover.
    • The second problem involved changes in broadcast signal reach. The FCC is using the data from Wilmington to identify 81 markets where a local affiliate will change the contour of its broadcast signal, and is working to ensure that consumers do not lose signal access. The Commission is also reevaluating the impact of the digital cliff, and attempting to further educate consumers about that problem and the potential need for new interior or exterior antennas after the transition.
    • Chairman Martin expressed his support for "soft tests" of the DTV transition in DMAs throughout the country. Such "soft tests" would involve broadcasters interrupting their analog signals to remind consumers about the transition and to encourage them to test their converter boxes. Several additional panelists were supportive of this move, provided that such tests last at least five minutes or more and occur during prime time or other heavily-viewed programming.
  • Members of Congress from states along the U.S./Mexico border continue to push for federal legislation delaying the DTV transition for certain television stations along the border. It is unclear if such legislation will pass in the limited time left before Congress leaves D.C. for the upcoming election.
  • The second panel of the House hearing addressed many issues arguably tangential to the DTV transition, but of interest to media companies:
    • Representatives of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Cable Telecommunications Association (NCTA) debated the need for a "quiet period" for retransmission consent negotiations that would limit the ability of a broadcaster to pull its signal from a local MVPD in the weeks leading up to and following the DTV transition. Chairman Martin expressed some support for this quiet period during his testimony, identifying a period of time approximately three weeks before and after the transition as his preferred dates.
    • Other panelists debated the need for legislative action to grant the Commission the authority to adopt the broadcast flag for digital broadcast signals.

Congress has shown its willingness recently to devote additional federal resources to the DTV transition. Legislation is being debated that would give $20 million in additional funds to the FCC for DTV education programs. The same bill would allow NTIA to repurpose up to $180 million from the auction proceeds for the 700 MHz auction to pay for additional administrative costs incurred by the DTV converter box coupon program. Passage of this bill is expected, but the political climate on Capitol Hill remains unpredictable as the election nears. Additional information about the House hearing is available here. Similar information on the Senate hearing is available here.