GAO: Gov't needed to aid public's digital education

WASHINGTON — A government report showing that many Americans remain clueless about the transition to digital TV sent broadcasters and cablers scrambling Monday to defend themselves.

The General Accounting Office report concluded that Washington will have to intervene if the digital switch is to happen any time soon.

A random survey showed that 40% of respondents know nothing about the switch to all-digital, while visits to 23 retailers found that sales staff sometimes provided wrong or incomplete information about digital TV equipment.

The GAO recommended that the Federal Communications Commission consider mandating that all TV sets be digital cable ready and set a hard deadline for broadcasting solely in digital.

As it stands now, broadcasters don’t have to go all digital until 85% of Americans have the necessary equipment.

Public needs help

Also, the GAO said the FCC must find a way to raise public awareness about the digital road ahead.

National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy-CEO Eddie Fritts said he agreed with the GAO’s finding that cable carriage and equipment compatibility remain a stumbling block. He has long argued that the cable biz is impeding the process by refusing to carry both the analog and new digital signal during the transition period.

“Local broadcasters continue to lead the digital television transition, and we expect more than 700 stations all over the U.S. will be transmitting DTV by year-end. More than 60% of Americans live in markets where local stations are delivering at least five DTV signals,” Fritts said.

National Cable & Telecom Assn. prexy-CEO Roberts Sachs said in his statement that the cable biz remains opposed to expanding “our carriage requirements through dual or multiple ‘must carry,’ which would disadvantage many nonbroadcast programmers and content providers.”

At the same time, Sachs said cablers look forward to working with Congress and the FCC to deliver digital TV to consumers.

Sachs said the report confirmed suspicions that the average TV viewer isn’t aware of the looming digital age, or that it will mean buying new equipment. He said additional education for consumers and retailers would be “very helpful.”

NAB funds campaign

Fritts pointed out that the NAB is already funding a major educational campaign in concert with the Consumer Electronics Assn.

“We also agree with GAO’s finding that cable carriage and compatibility issues need quick resolution before consumers can enjoy the full fruits of the DTV revolution,” Fritts said.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) spread word of the GAO report, saying he will introduce legislation incorporating some of the report’s findings.

“DTV still has incredible potential for being a driver of economic growth, innovation and job creation — but only if the government provides the leadership required to jump-start much-needed economic activity by taking concrete steps to dramatically accelerate the digital TV transition,” Markey said.

Digital TV is sure to be a topic of debate at the annual Western Cable Show, which convenes today in Anaheim under the newly revised name Broadband Plus: The New Western Cable Show.

Four-day confab will include a Wednesday briefing by FCC staffers on the digital TV transition.

Also Wednesday, Comcast topper Brian Roberts is skedded to sit down for a one-on-one interview with CNBC anchor Bill Griffeth.

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