FCC DTV Road Tour: Your Tax Dollars at Work

Maybe it’s just me, but does anyone else get the idea that the FCC is making up this digital TV transition thing as they go along? After what seemed like years of wrangling before they finally set a firm date for the changeover, they have been making some major adjustments ever since.

For example, there was the decision to make Wilmington, NC a guinea pig for the transition, making all their stations switch over the week after Labor Day. Oh, except for the full-powered public television station that is part of the statewide emergency broadcast system (as we enter the heart of hurricane season.) Was this test case a part of the original plan? The fact that it was decided on last spring leads one to think not.

And then there are the changes in the rules for broadcasters on the Mexican border, and the problem of what to do with the funds for millions of converter box rebate cards that weren’t used before their 90-day expiration date. And on and on. You have to wonder just how much planning went into this whole program.

And now the FCC has decided that not enough U.S. television owners are aware of the impending digital transition. That’s not too surprising, as study after study continue to show significant percentages of the most-affected groups don’t completely understand the situation. So what is the FCC’s response? The commissioners are heading out to “all those markets in which more than 100,000 households or at least 15% of the households rely solely on over-the-air signals for television.” This outreach program will hold “a public event, such as a town hall meeting, workshop, or roundtable with an FCC Commissioner” in each market, with the hope that local radio, TV, and print press will cover the events.

The FCC press release lists 81 markets that will be visited, though the list raises more questions than it answers. Philadelphia is on it, but Pittsburg is not. Pittsburg surely has more than 100,000 households. Yet two markets in Alaska — Anchorage and Fairbanks – are on the list. Only Honolulu made the cut for Hawaii. Seven markets in California are on the list, though San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are lumped into one. Maybe there’s a rationale fof choosing the sites for these visits, but it’s not immediately obvious. And there’s no mention of how much all this will cost, or where the money is coming from for this last-ditch attempt to educate the country.

I don’t think that the sky is falling yet, though I do think that there will be a lot of surprised and unhappy people, starting with Wilmington in a few short weeks. And I think that the segments of the population most likely to be affected by the transition are not likely to notice a visit by an FCC commissioner. I do think that there are a lot of aspects of this transition that show signs of lack of vision in its conception and implementation, where creative measures might have been more cost-effective and have more impact. And this road trip plan is just underscores my assessment.