Digital cable alert is on -- for $200 mil

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WASHINGTON -- In an effort to ensure a smooth transition to digital TV in 2009, the cable industry announced the launch of a $200-million ad campaign to assure their customers that their TV sets will still work.

The campaign includes four 30-second spots to be aired on broadcast and cable networks. Ads began airing in the Washington, D.C., market this week.

"Consumer education should start sooner, rather than later," said Kyle McSlarrow, National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. president and CEO, in a letter to lawmakers.

The biggest impact of the digital transition will be on those who receive their signals with an antenna. Those viewers will need a converter box, the cost of which will be largely covered if consumers sign up for a government-funded coupon program.

A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office said 21 million households, about 19% of the nation, rely on antennae rather than cable or satellite to get TV.

The spots open with a graphic that reads: "By law TV stations will end analog broadcasts on February 17, 2009, and broadcast exclusively in digital." That's followed by cable customers assuring viewers that "every TV set you have that's hooked up to cable will work just fine."

As of now the government does not require the industry to provide an analog signal when broadcasters begin to transmit the digital signal. That could change Tuesday when the FCC has scheduled a vote on it.

Broadcasters want the cable industry to carry analog and digital signals during the transition, contending that failing to do so would cause millions of viewers to lose their local TV signals. The National Association of Broadcasters said the cable industry's announcement was little more than a cynical political ploy to keep the FCC at bay.

"The advice provided in cable's public relations efforts is plainly inconsistent with the industry's opposition to the commission's proposal" for dual carriage, wrote NAB senior vp and general counsel Jane Mago and Association for Maximum Service TV president David Donovan, in a letter to the FCC. "Blocking these subscribers access to local broadcasts -- particularly after telling them that they need not be concerned about the digital transition -- would cause serious harm."
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