FCC Relaxes Digital-TV Transition Order

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

The Federal Communications Commission is planning to lay out a new, more flexible set of guidelines for broadcasters, cable companies and television manufacturers as they try to educate consumers about the coming switch from analog to digital programming.

The commission has been under pressure by consumer groups and members of Congress to take stronger steps in raising awareness about the transition. Broadcasters will stop sending analog signals and move to all-digital programming on Feb. 17, 2009. After that, TV watchers who rely on antennas to receive over-the-air broadcasts will need a special converter box.

Educating consumers on how to avoid losing their TV signals has proved to be a daunting task. Many of the estimated 70 million or so analog TV sets that rely on over-the-air signals belong to minorities, seniors, low-income individuals and people who live in rural areas. These communities also heavily rely on such television broadcasts to receive critical information, such as news and weather reports and public-safety warnings.

Digital television sets or those hooked up to cable or satellite service will not be affected by the transition.

Under a previous plan, the FCC proposed to order broadcasters and cable operators to implement a variety of education initiatives. The industries expressed concern, however, that the tightly scripted public service announcements and reminders to be stuffed in monthly bills did not allow enough flexibility in reaching their customers.

The revised plan, which agency staff members said could be released as early as today, softens those requirements. According to the new order, broadcasters have the choice of following the FCC's plan or the guidelines set forth by their trade group, the National Association of Broadcasters.

Cable providers will be required to notify their customers of the impending transition at least once a month, according to people familiar with the order who spoke on condition of anonymity because it has not been released. TV manufacturers will also be required to notify customers of the transition in product packaging.

The NAB has committed about $1 billion to educating consumers about the transition, while the cable industry has said it will spend about $200 million over the next year.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company