Less Than 100 Days

“100 days” is a popular measuring stick for a number of things in our modern world.

Here, we’re not talking about the progress of presidential administrations. We’re talking digital TV…as we’re less than 100 days from the mid-February day where every full-power TV station in the country will be forced to shut down that old analog transmitter, and solely broadcast its new digital signal.

Well, give or take a few stations shutting analog down early…among them, Northeast Ohio’s own WNEO/45 Alliance, the Youngstown market half of “Western Reserve PBS”, set to do so in less than 10 days.

And as per usual, it’s Western Reserve PBS leading the way – almost singlehandedly, it would appear – in pre-DTV conversion education.

The Kent-based PBS outlet will hold another digital TV “Open House” for viewers, like the one the station held recently at its Campus Center Drive headquarters in Kent.

This second “Open House” will be held in the Youngstown area, Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m., at the Austintown Library, 600 S. Raccoon Rd., in Austintown:

This is a great opportunity to see converter box demonstrations, ask questions about antenna issues and learn more about the converter box coupon program. Free refreshments will be served!

Of course, those converter boxes on display will NOT actually be able to pick up WNEO’s own digital signal, as it will shut down temporarily – starting tomorrow – in the process of returning it to the air in a permanent form after analog channel 45 shuts off for good later this month.

But we’re once again flustered by the fact that among Northeast Ohio’s TV stations, only Western Reserve PBS seems to be doing anything significant to educate viewers about the coming DTV transition, just over three months from when it actually happens.

As far as we know, every other TV station in the region is solely relying upon federally-mandated public service announcements, on-screen crawls and website sections to carry the message.

At very least, broadcasters in other markets and states have coordinated soft “tests” – cutting programming off the analog signal to inform viewers that if they see the message, they (or their cable system!) aren’t ready for the digital transition.

A story on the national marking of the 100 day-till-DTV transition milestone by Broadcasting and Cable’s John Eggerton has this telling piece of information:

For instance, (National Association of Broadcasters head) David Rehr pointed out that 150 stations in 49 markets had conducted soft analog shut-off tests. He said that next week, TV stations in Pennsylvania would be holding a statewide analog cut-off test, which he called the largest such test to date.

Next door to Pennsylvania, we know of no such plans in Ohio, or even individual plans in any Ohio market to coordinate such tests.

We believe that state broadcasters are putting together early plans to deal with the transition itself, but even that planning seems a bit late.

Perhaps Cleveland market stations, for example, need to contact the folks at ION Television, which owns WVPX/23 Akron. ION has coordinated many of those market-wide tests, including in New York City.

Of course, here, WVPX would not be able to actually participate in such a test… as its digital signal won’t even be up and running until it “flash cuts” on channel 23 on February 17th.

And the B&C article quotes another FCC commissioner with some ideas as we head towards DTV Transition Day:

Commissioner Robert McDowell put in a plug for soft analog cut-off tests, more long-form PSAs and tailoring messages to local markets.

Gee, we didn’t know an FCC commissioner reads OMW!

Heh…we’re kidding, of course, but that’s a drumbeat we’ve had here for some time… with many of the messages being put out over the air, and website sections, being just simple repackaging of national spots or web presentations.

While we’re taking TV stations to task here, we’ll aim at the cable companies as well.

It probably runs against every fiber of their being, but cable companies would be smart to publicize their lowest-cost “lifeline” tier as a, well, lifeline to viewers worried that they won’t be able to pick up local stations over the air after the transition.

Yes, we know…the marketing on the cable side is usually geared toward bundling of multiple services – digital cable, high-speed Internet, digital phone and HDTV.

But perhaps some targeted marketing could be done, to grab those who aren’t about to spend $99 a month on such services, but who would gladly fork over $10 or so a month to make sure they could still get basic TV service.

We’re no sales force, so we’ll leave that to the cable outlets.

In summary, as we approach February 17th, local stations need to do more, and need to do it more urgently.

While we appreciate that education is indeed part of the mission of Western Reserve PBS, they should not be forced to “go it alone” on this vital issue for the local TV industry…and as far as we can see, they are, right now, in the Cleveland and Youngstown markets.

We also realize that the economy and the state of media in 2008 has put the squeeze on staffing at the local commercial stations.

But by preparing more viewers before February 17th, stations will be less swamped on that date and immediately after. If even a certain percentage of those who watch TV only via antenna are not prepared, that’s still a few thousand people in Northeast Ohio…

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