A Best Buy store here set the stage for the kickoff of the DTV converter-box-coupon program in an event that looked for all the world like the Yalta conference. It didn't quite rise to the level of the allied powers convening to decide the fate of the post-war world, but it did unite the major players involved in the switch from analog to digital in the TV world.
On hand were U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, FCC chairman Kevin Martin, Best Buy senior VP Mike Vitelli, NAB president David K. Rehr, NCTA president Kyle McSlarrow, National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) head Meredith Atwell Baker and Consumer Electronics Association VP Jason Oxman. (CEA president Gary Shapiro would have been there, but he was at a board meeting in Utah.)
The message was that much has been done to educate TV viewers about their options in the coming digital age: get a converter box if they have an analog-only set and want to receive over the air signals; hook up to cable or satellite; or buy a new DTV or HDTV set.
The NTIA is overseeing the converter-box-coupon program, and has said boxes will be on the shelves Feb. 17, 2008, when it will start processing coupon requests. Consumers have been able to apply for the coupons since Jan. 1, and more than two million people have already applied for more than 4 million coupons (a maximum of two to a customer).
As flashes flashed, Vitelli reminded an audience of reporters and the occasional interested Best Buy shopper that his chain had been the first to stop selling analog TVs back in October, and called the upcoming transition "one of the most important days in communications history."
That day was the official announcement that digital-to-analog converter boxes are now available in Best Buy, Radio Shack and Wal-Mart stores. Best Buy also unveiled its new hot line — (877) BBY-DTV9, where customers can get information about the transition and eventually redeem their coupons and purchase the boxes over the phone.
Vitelli said the transition was unprecedented for retailers as well as the media, saying it had required revising its point of sales system and retraining employees.
Asked why hooking up to cable was option No. 2 for a transition that is primarily broadcast, FCC chairman Martin conceded the education message would probably be different depending on who was giving it out — cable could be expected to recruit viewers to its service, broadcasters to tout the benefits of over the air, and consumer electronics companies to try and sell converter boxes and TVs.
NAB's Rehr did not disappoint. Speaking before a bank of monitors all showing a DTV converter box coupon, he said, "Digital broadcasting offers crystal-clear pictures and sound, more channels and more services than ever before. And it's free!"
Rehr also said that as part of what he called a $1 billion education effort, broadcasters would be launching a new set of public service announcements later this month that focus on the coupon program.
Chairman Martin has proposed requiring broadcasters to air a certain minimum number of PSAs, but broadcasters have countered with their own proposal that the FCC exempt from such rules any broadcaster who commits to voluntarily exceed that minimum.
Martin said the that he and the others were united in an effort to make sure viewers don't wake up to a blank screen on Feb. 18, 2009, when the plug is pulled on most analog signals (low-power stations and TV translators are not required to make the switch at that time).
The coupons — worth $40 a piece toward the purchase of a converter box costing anywhere from $40 to $70 — expire within 90 days, so having them on the shelves when NTIA starts issuing them is important. Asked why only three retailers had them on the shelves, Secretary Gutierrez pointed out that those three already had the boxes, so were early, and that he thought they would be widely available by the time consumers started getting their coupons. He also said there should be enough coupons for everyone who needs them.
That was echoed by the CEA's Oxman, although CEA and NAB differ on their figures. NAB says 17 percent of households are analog-only, while CEA puts the figure at 11 percent.
Rehr said he would have to wait and see whether there were enough coupons, saying he expected an increase in requests spurred by the NAB's new education efforts. If it looks like they are going to run out he said, he would ask the government for more funds for more coupons.
John Eggerton is Washington bureau chief of Broadcasting & Cable, part of Reed Business Information and a sister publication of TWICE.