In February 2006, President George W. Bush mandated that all over-the-air broadcasting signals would transition to digital format three years later. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a group that advocates for more than 8,000 TV and radio stations, faced a daunting task: Tell millions of US residents how they can – and why they should – go out of their way to update their TV sets.
The group sought to run the effort like a political campaign, using the digital converter box as the candidate and the original transition date of February 17, 2009, as Election Day.
The NAB hired Jonathan Collegio, then spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, to run communications for the transition. Winning, he says, would be tabulated not by votes, but by level of consumer awareness.
“[The NAB] saw a marketing and PR campaign that wasn't exactly like many others. It had an end date and it was not unlike a political campaign,” Collegio adds. “They decided [to] run it like a political campaign, with the transition as the candidate on Election Day and a campaign manager that would try to get the candidate to win.”
Collegio took inventory of the NAB's available resources. He knew the group could use the airwaves themselves to broadcast PSAs and other messaging, as well as TV network personnel who could go out into their own communities to ex-plain the complicated transition. The NAB also employed campaign stops of a sort, he added.
“We ran a nationwide road show. We went to a series of targeted markets to have grassroots events to raise awareness,” recalls Collegio. “We reached out to 20,000 primarily Hispanic- and African-American churches because we know that... [they are] more likely to receive transmissions through antennas than the rest of the population.”
Collegio also faced the challenge of organizing messaging for the extremely diverse DTV Transition Coalition – whose membership ranges from the American Library Association to Meals on Wheels to the Rural Coalition – to ensure that communications was properly coordinated among all members.
“It speaks to the leadership of the coalition that we made a point of having messaging subcommittees,” said Shermaze Ingram, director of media relations at the NAB. “They have been instrumental in having a working group represented by all stakeholders. When we put together the documents all of them [use], we're using the same phonebook.”
Yet Collegio, who was once called “the Karl Rove of digital television” by Mike Allen, chief political correspondent at Politico, faced a major hurdle when public opinion turned against the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's coupon program. And in a political anomaly, “Election Day” was delayed when President Barack Obama signed legislation postponing the DTV transition to June 12.
“With hard work and sweat, we can overcome [the hurdles] by June 12,” says Collegio, adding that he hopes to keep complaints about the process to a minimum after the transition. “Success here is silence. It's a weird science. You can always find people who complain, so it's difficult to quantify dissatisfaction.”
Natl. Assoc. of Broadcasters, VP for digital TV transition
Sept. 2005-Nov. 2006
National Republican Congressional Committee, press secretary