On Feb. 17, 2009, television signals will go all-digital. As a result, analog-only TVs without equipment enhancements will no longer be able to receive programming. Over the course of the last year, a massive advertising blitz has been put into play in an effort to make the transition as seamless as possible--but as D-Day nears, concerns remain about the number of people who will be affected.
Among the locals making the late push is Arizona Public Media, which operates PBS affiliate KUAT Channel 6 and is proposing public hearings to tackle the issues.
"We want to put something together to talk about what to do for anyone who has questions," said Wendy Erica Werden, Arizona Public Media's director of marketing and brand management. "How do you get the coupon, get the converter box, put your antenna in place to get better reception? All of those types of things are the questions people are asking."
KUAT will also receive some federal get-the-word-out assistance at one of Tucson's biggest winter events: "We have the national DTV Road Show at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair the weekend of the 12th of December," Werden said.
A large part of the push is designed to reach the elderly--the demographic perhaps most confused and concerned about what they need to do.
"A lot of them tend to be older folks who aren't necessarily technically savvy, although some are so technically savvy, they want to know the exact degree to place their antenna to get the best possible reception," Werden said. "It runs the gamut from people who don't think they have to do anything to people who think they have to buy a digital television."
Belo-owned KTTU Channel 18 already endured an unintentional test when it lost its analog signal for about a week a couple of months ago. (See Media Watch, Oct. 2.) When that happened, the switchboard was busy, and it acted as a wake-up call about how significant the effects of the transition could be.
"When people called in, they knew already what's going to happen," said Belo Tucson general manager Tod Smith. "Some have converter boxes already, but they haven't hooked them up, some because they're afraid of the technology, and some because they don't think it will work until February. It will work now. By and large, most of the calls we've handled, people know. It's just a decision about when they're going to act, and that's the hard thing. 'My TV set is still working; why am I going to mess with it?'"
The impact on rural communities is a significant concern as well, and Smith has made overtures to address those markets.
"(Belo community relations coordinator) Bob Lee and I went down to Nogales, Mexico, for a radio broadcast that is heavily listened to by the people in Nogales, Ariz. It's Spanish-language," Smith said. "We did a show on the AM in the morning and the FM that afternoon. Then we were interviewed by the newspaper. A lot of people in Nogales, Ariz., have family in Mexico who listen to the radio station and read the newspaper. We're trying everything we can to get the word out."
That includes television awareness campaigns (every TV station in the market runs a scroll warning of the transition), additional programming (KMSB and CBS affiliate KOLD Channel 13 are among the stations that have and will broadcast specials dedicated to the issues pertaining to DTV) and, of course, as many public ventures as time will allow.
"I have made four appearances to explain the situation," said KOLD general manager Jim Arnold, "two Rotaries, a retirement village and an executives' association."
There are also discussions in the works to run a market-wide test that would switch every signal to digital for a brief period of time. That way, the thought process goes, viewers who aren't getting a signal during that test will know they'll have to act before Feb. 17.
"My thought process is the earlier you let people know, the better equipped they are to make a decision that's right for them," Smith said, "be it cable, satellite, another television set or a converter box. Unfortunately, we have a lot of people who are waiting until the 16th."
This move, along with the acquisition of KWBA Channel 58/Cable Channel 8, caused a series of technical issues that plagued viewers. Those issues included the occasional broadcasting of KGUN's signal on KWBA, and problems with high-def programming on some of the satellite providers.
"I would characterize them as unfortunate growing pains," said Jim Thomas, Journal's PR voice in Milwaukee. "We are completely renovating the KGUN building, probably with some minor exceptions to our conference rooms, edit suites and newsroom. The rest of the building is being renovated pretty drastically to move the Journal radio stations over there, studios and administrative, and then the addition of KWBA.
"In the process, we've gone from what was a decades-old master control and satellite receive-and-switching area, and we've had to retool with full digital gear. Consequentially, what has happened is some switching elements have not functioned as we would have hoped ... and we've been troubleshooting that the last 30 days. We started to make a big, long list in the middle of September, and we've started to knock things off. I think we're getting a little better now. I'm hopeful most of it is behind us."
The studio transition of the radio stations, currently located on Country Club Road near Prince Road, will take place one at a time over the course of the next couple of months. Journal hopes to have the process completed by the end of the year.