FCC confident as 'd-day' looms

Agency expects digital transition to go smoothly

Just days before the transition to digital TV, 2.8 million households, or 2.5% of the TV market, are unprepared.

According to Nielsen's final update, the new tally is half of the 5.8 million that were unprepared in February, when the government postponed the transition by three months.

At a news conference Wednesday in Los Angeles, acting FCC chairman Michael Copps reiterated the importance of the transition and said the agency was expecting relatively minor problems when the switchover begins Friday.

"This is the biggest transition in television, an even bigger transition than black and white to color," Copps said. "Our whole society is going digital, and broadcast needs to be a part of that transition."

Copps said the freed-up bandwidth will help establish a public safety network, as well as provide more room for wireless and broadband applications.

Yet Copps, who Barack Obama appointed as head of the FCC in January, also was critical of the government's handling of the transition during the past two years.

"We've got some humps and bumps to navigate; there's still a number of people who don't know what to do," Copps said. "We knew this transition was coming; the government was late getting itself organized ... but we are where we are and have to make this transition."

The FCC has employed 4,000 phone operators to be standing by through the weekend to handle calls coming through their information line (888-225-5322). Some broadcasters are layering on their own initiatives to help viewers make the switch. For example, in Los Angeles, the TV stations have set up their own phone bank to help ease the transition.

Experts say problems are likely to be concentrated in markets that are least prepared.

Albuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M., is the least ready, with 7.6% of TV homes completely unprepared. There also are several of the nation's largest markets that have percentages of unprepared TV households in the 4%-5% range, including Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle-Tacoma, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

How those percentages will translate into TV ratings is the big unknown.

"This is the d-day, the week it is going to happen," said Stan Statham, president and CEO and California Broadcasters Assn. "All Americans will receive better picture, better sound. There is nothing negative about what's happening this week."

James Hibberd reported from Los Angeles; Mediaweek senior editor Katy Bachman reported from New York.