Lawmaker proposes digital TV bill

Sen. Herb Kohl tries to raise tech awareness

A key lawmaker has introduced a bill to establish a coordinated public-private partnership that will get word out about the transition to digital TV, particularly to the elderly.

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) cited new evidence that the country’s senior population is at disproportionate risk of seeing their TV sets go dark when the nation switches to all-digital broadcasting in 2009. The chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging was speaking Wednesday before a special hearing the committee held on the subject.

“Seniors are particularly vulnerable to slipping through the cracks of the transition,” said Kohl in his opening statement. “Not only are they more likely to rely on free over-the-air analog TV signals, but for many seniors, television is their only link to the outside world. Without adequate planning and coordination, seniors will be left in the dark.”

The special committee recently completed an investigation “that found the federal government is drastically unprepared to educate America’s seniors about the transition, set to take place Feb. 17, 2009,” said Kohl.

Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office, said in his testimony that the various governmental agencies currently involved in the transition — the Federal Communications Commission, the Dept. of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Administration on Aging — lack coordination and adequate planning.

FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said his agency’s DTV outreach and education efforts to date have been “lackluster. Specifically, there is a lack of an established command and control structure that is responsible to coordinate the national DTV transition effort and to vet, prioritize and implement meritorious ideas from the public and private sectors into a comprehensive, coherent and coordinated plan.”

“If we don’t do a better job,” Adelstein added, “we’re going to have one of the biggest outrages this Congress has ever seen.”

Analog television sets that are not hooked up to a cable or satellite system or to a device that converts digital signals back to analog will go dark after the transition. A study commissioned by the Assn. of Public Television Stations found that Americans 65 and older are more likely than younger viewers to have over-the-air-dependent sets. According to the American Assn. of Retired Persons, viewers 50 and older watch the most television every day — almost 5½ hours of any audience segment.

Another APTS study showed that 61% of all Americans are still clueless about the impending transition.

The cable industry recently launched a $200 million DTV-transition education campaign, and broadcasters have pledged to mount their own campaign.

Kohl’s bill would establish a task force for coordinating all involved parties.

“Additionally, the partnership would be required to develop a road map for consumer education, with specific and achievable benchmarks, and report to Congress on progress,” Kohl said. “The legislation will also set requirements for the industry, which has a major financial stake in a successful DTV transition.”

Those requirements include mandatory public service announcements and a toll-free phone number people could call to find out if they are at risk and what help they can get.

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