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Why radio should take notice of the DTV conversion

Published on: February 17, 2009

If you work in radio, pay close attention to what has happened with the DTV conversion, a transition that was scheduled to culminate in a massive and singular flip of the switch today, but has instead become a chaotic and piecemeal change that will result in confusion and indifference. And now, because the Federal Government really screwed up the conversion, this will all happen without the added benefits of increased preparedness, uniformity or clarity. Pay close attention because when and if the time comes for radio to turn off our analog transmissions (which is unlikely anytime in the near future), we now have a blue print of what not to do.

In the end it wasn’t the broadcasters’ fault. Not completely. After setting the transition date and promoting it for almost four years, the decision was made by the Federal Government just two weeks before the change to push it back. That decision came with the caveat that broadcasters were not required to continue sending their analog signals. The networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) fell in line and decided to keep going until the new cutoff. But as many as 40% of TV stations are going to flip anyway, according to The Wall Street Journal. That means confusion. And lots of it for the consumer – and for marketers, who won’t really know who’s watching or have a solid standard for the next four months. With stations now allowed to flip anytime between today and June 12 (the new date for transition), there will be a slow and unorganized conversion, kind of like changing each bulb on a string of Christmas lights one at a time.

In my opinion, the flip should have happened for all stations today, on February 17, as originally scheduled, for better or for worse, but that’s not going to be the case. Some estimates say as few as six million homes are unprepared OR under-prepared for the change. That’s a tiny number. Television is obviously an important medium for communication (although arguably not as ubiquitous as radio) and everyone involved is just trying to make sure the population has access to it. The problem is that the four month delay means people across the country will be scrambling in no particular order, and it will be difficult to deploy limited resources effectively.

The plan to delay the transition started off with the best of intentions. Coupons for the converter box were in short supply and eventually ran out. Up to 3,700,000 people are on the wait list. But instead of adding money to the program to give everyone a chance to purchase or acquire a converter box if they needed one, the folks in Washington, D.C. meddled with the dates to give the illusion of support and understanding. And this doesn’t even speak to the issue of converter box vs. new antenna. This conversion was on track for almost four years, until politics got in the way.

I acknowledge that a conversion of this scale will never be perfect. Several reports like this one acknowledge that what the U.S. is attempting is unique in the world. Everyone involved needs to acknowledge that come June 12, a small percentage of the population will probably still be left in the dark. If we were to wait until 100% of people were digital ready, it would never, ever happen.

Radio should take notice. Eventually, change will come.

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