Easing the transition

The NAB has made a significant investment into educating consumers about the upcoming digital television switch.

The NAB has made a significant investment into educating consumers about the upcoming digital television switch.

Like running water or electricity, TV today is a utility few Americans could bear not having. But losing TV service is exactly what will happen in February 2009 for anyone who tries to use his or her analog TV without a converter box for cable, satellite, or over-the air service.

On February 17, 2009, to be exact, all broadcasters will cease analog transmission of TV signals and switch to entirely digital broadcasts, which means those rabbit-ear antennas won't draw TV signals anymore. To forestall public perplexity about why that's so, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) - along with a host of other groups, including the FCC and associations like the AARP- is conducting extensive outreach across the US explaining the federally mandated change and what consumers can do to avoid losing their free TV services.

The basic message is that consumers can use a federally subsidized coupon to help buy a converter box to allow analog TVs to receive digital signals. But how do people get the coupons? How are the boxes installed? How do people even tell if their TVs are analog or digital? All these questions make explaining the transition far too complicated to be handled simply through PSAs, notes Jonathan Collegio, VP of the NAB's digital TV transition.

A complex issue

"It's extremely complicated to explain in a 30-second spot," he says. "[The issue] gets very complicated very quickly. 'What if I'm hooked up to cable or satellite, but I have a TV in the backroom that's not hooked up?' Well, you'll have to upgrade. 'What if I have TVs at a vacation house?' Well, you'll have to upgrade. Then there are other levels of complexity, like some of the satellite services don't offer local programming."

To prevent as much confusion - and anger - as possible on the day of the transition, the NAB is making the largest push of all the various entities with a stake in the transition. In a nearly $700 million PR and marketing push that began in February 2007 and runs through transition day, the NAB logically has sought to capitalize on the extensive broadcast and communications skills of its members. Outreach includes a speakers bureau, media and government relations, PSAs, marketing events, and trade show appearances.

Collegio likens the outreach to a political campaign: There may not be a traditional "candidate," but there is a particular concept to be sold that must reach as many people as possible by a set date.

"Our goal is to saturate awareness among Americans about the DTV transition," says Collegio, who prior to joining NAB was press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The goal [is that] no one loses transmission because they don't know about the transition."

Outreach is focusing on those demographics more likely to rely on over-the-air broadcasts, including older people, minorities, the poor, and people in rural areas. PSAs - or "DTV action spots," as NAB prefers to call them - are an essential element of the campaign. But as Collegio notes, a 10- to 30-second spot isn't enough for the various questions people may have, though it can direct them to toll-free numbers and Web sites.

To ensure as much word of mouth about the transition as possible, though, the group is relying on two forms of grassroots outreach.

The first is a nearly 1,000-person volunteer speakers bureau consisting of local TV station executives and anchors, business executives, and other representatives of the TV industry who speak at Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, chambers of commerce, senior citizen centers, workplaces, and many other locations to explain not just the overall switch, but also issues of particular concern to locals.

Crosby-Volmer International Communications (CVIC) has a 15-person multi-lingual team helping NAB manage the bureau and, so far, has lined up about 1,000 speeches around the country. Ultimately, some 8,000 speeches are planned. CVIC is also aiding media outreach, with about 200 media interviews conducted weekly with print, online, radio, and TV media.

"With Alabama Boy Scouts, we've created a merit badge where kids can get service points and earn merit badges for going out and telling people about the transition and coming up with a project related to the transition," says CVIC president Rob Volmer.

Message hits the road

The second component is a two-vehicle DTV "road show" managed by Mobile Media Enterprises that travels to state fairs, community events, shopping centers, and other locations throughout the country. These "DTV Trekkers" are 20-feet-high, three-sided TV screens with messaging designed to run in either Spanish or English. They will make more than 600 appearances around the US by transition day.

"Anywhere where you would find big groups of people, we are trying to be there," says Shermaze Ingram, senior director of media relations for the NAB transition team. She adds that along with focusing on key demographics such as the elderly and minorities, outreach to federal and state legislators has been key to help them answer all the questions constituents might have.

To support the campaign, SmithGeiger has conducted extensive surveys for the NAB to understand just who most needs converter boxes and what messaging would be most critical to focus on. The NAB team has also visited the UK, Sweden, and other countries that have switched to DTV to gain their lessons learned. In addition, Ingram says that through monthly meetings with AARP, NAACP, and hundreds of other members of the DTV Transition Coalition, groups in the US working to educate people about the transition are sharing tips on what's effective to reach certain people.

"None of us pretend we know all the answers," Ingram says. "Everyone keeps everyone else honest in terms of the best way to do something."

Select DTV Coalition members

  • AARP
  • American Library Association
  • Association for Maximum Service Television
  • Association of Public Television Stations
  • BestBuy
  • Consumer Electronics Association
  • Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition
  • Disney
  • Federal Citizens Information Center
  • Federal Communications Commission
  • Goodwill Industries International
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
  • National Association of Broadcasters
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • National Cable & Telecommunications Association
  • National Urban League
  • Target
  • US Chamber of Commerce

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