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A modest proposal for a smoother digital TV switchover

An early test of the analog TV shutoff revealed that a lot of people didn't get the message. Here's a plan to help correct that.

Wilmington, N.C., was a testing ground for the DTV switchover, and the results weren't encouraging. It looks as if a lot of people were left in the dark--literally--when the town's TV stations shut off their analog signals at noon on September 5. Apparently, they didn't get the word, despite a high-visibility public information campaign.

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"So what?" you might say. "They'll miss a few Everybody Loves Raymond reruns while they sort things out." Sure, TV is largely an entertainment medium, but--for better or worse--it's also a primary source of information for many people in an emergency. Right now, there may well be hundreds (if not thousands) of households in Wilmington that can't use their primary information source for news on approaching hurricanes, for instance.

So how do we do a better job of informing people of the analog TV shutdown? CNET's doing its part with our Quick Guide to DTV Transition, but because the analog shutoff only affects those with over-the-air reception (not cable or satellite TV households), these tend to be poorer or older folks who are less likely to have easy access to alternate information sources such as the Web.

Clearly, the main source of information has to be the TV itself. But more importantly, it needs to be targeted at those who are only watching TV over the air. So here's my fairly simple three-point plan to do just that:

1. The FCC should require all cable and satellite providers to begin using the digital-only versions of all broadcast stations on their systems. Most of the digital channels are already up and running--they're largely the HDTV simulcasts that many folks are already enjoying.

Once the analog stations go dark (February 17), the cable and satellite providers will just flip a switch and use the digital signals in their respective place. (They'll dumb-down the digital and HD signals to analog at standard resolution--so everyone without a wide-screen set will be getting a permanent letterboxed feed from that point forward.) Rather than wait until the switchover date, the FCC should encourage all cable and satellite providers to switch signal sources much earlier--say, November 15.

2. Begin heavy rotation of DTV public service announcements on the analog-only channels. Once the cable and satellite viewers have been removed from the mix, that would leave the over-the-air antenna crowd--the only ones who will be affected by the DTV switchover--as the only ones watching the analog feeds. Now that the real target audience has been isolated, stations could ramp up the rotation of DTV public service announcements, informing viewers that they only have a few months/weeks until "the station they're watching now stops broadcasting."

3. Add screencrawls to the analog-only channels in the final eight weeks. If viewers are still missing the increasing wave of commercials, you'll need to intrude upon the actual programming as the deadline approaches. Stations already do this with those annoying snipes and animated graphics advertising upcoming programs--now they could it for DTV info.

A text crawl along the bottom of the screen could further remind viewers that the channels they're watching will be imminently disappearing. It could even display a local or national toll-free number they could call for assistance. In the final weeks, it might even be worthwhile to put a permanent countdown clock as well.

Yes, I'm sure that even after such an escalating campaign, some people would still slip through the cracks. Maybe they could even leave the analog stations turned on for a few weeks after February 17 with a splash screen that says, "Analog TV service has been discontinued. For information on how to get this channel back, call 1-888-DTV-2009 or go to www.dtvtransition.org."

The whole point here is to get the public information campaign up to the level of annoyance to prod every possible viewer to make the necessary plans (such as obtaining a nearly free DTV converter box) to avoid their TV going dark. And by targeting only the viewers who actually need the information and making the message as shrill as possible, I think it would be a lot more effective than the efforts to date.

What do you think: Is this a workable plan? Or do you have a better idea for stepping up the public information campaign for DTV transition?