Louisa Ha

In her recent study, Louisa Ha concluded that PBS stations in Ohio are doing better than their commercial counterparts in their digital TV education efforts.

Education about DTV transition lacking in Ohio: BGSU researchers

Most commercial television stations in Ohio have promoted the transition to digital TV little beyond the minimum required by the government, nor have many of them localized information about the switch or explained it in sufficient detail.

Those are among the conclusions of Dr. Louisa Ha, acting chair of telecommunications, from her recent study of all 67 Ohio stations’ approach to the transition. Of those, 51 are full-power stations—the only ones required to turn off their analog signals, initially by Feb. 17 and now by June 12 with the delay recently approved by Congress.

Ha also found that noncommercial (PBS) stations are doing better in their educational efforts, as well as in the number of digital channels they’re already offering to viewers who have a digital TV or a converter box. She attributes those findings to PBS’s ability to obtain extra government funding and, in the case of digital channels, those channels’ ability to help PBS “even the playing field” with commercial stations by making more varied programming possible.

Ha’s research coincides with a study by her telecommunications department colleague, Dr. Sung-Yeon Park, on DTV readiness of Ohio residents and of viewers of WBGU-PBS in particular.

More than 250 of the Bowling Green public TV station’s newest members participated in a telephone survey conducted in mid-November by 25 students in a telecommunications class. Meanwhile, over 100 students surveyed adults in their Ohio hometowns in person and by email, as well as on the phone.

Ninety percent of the WBGU members were aware of the Feb. 17 conversion date, as were 86 percent of 729 Ohioans polled separately. Compared to the WBGU members, however, many more of the Ohio survey’s respondents who had at least one analog TV set receiving signals over the air were not ready for DTV and unaware of the government’s converter-box coupon program.

During the WBGU phone survey, “some members received practical information on how to prepare for the DTV conversion,” Park noted in a written summary of her findings. “WBGU-PBS staff members and engineers were available during the call outs, and they answered many questions. If desired, the members were also contacted later and received information concerning DTV.”

Among the sources of Ha’s data were the required, quarterly DTV activity reports filed by full-power stations in October 2008. As set by the Federal Communications Commission, the standard of sufficient DTV education for commercial stations includes broadcast of at least three public service announcements (PSAs) and across-the-screen “crawls” per day, or 16 PSAs and “crawls” per week, along with one 30-minute program per quarter. Ninety percent of Ohio’s commercial stations chose to run 16 PSAs per week rather than at least three a day, Ha learned, and during the quarter she studied, only six stations—including just three network TV affiliates—aired more than the minimum of one half-hour program explaining the transition.

The complexity of the switch is enough to have warranted more than one half-hour of educational programming every three months, she argued, saying the 30-minute format would be more applicable to most people. Further evidence of what she called passive promoting has been the lack of localized information about the transition.

“One third of the stations do not provide any information customized to the local audience on their Web sites, despite the fact that local channel availability and reception vary greatly by markets,” Ha wrote in a summary of her research. Instead, she pointed out, 92 percent of them have used government-provided educational materials such as “DTV Answers” and information about the converter coupon program.

Even stations that are already offering digital channels “prefer to stick to the minimum” requirement for DTV education, said Ha, who also reviewed station Web sites and DTV program guides. “Multiple channels should require more education to the consumers about the different digital offerings,” she maintained in her summary, adding that only about half of the stations provide digital-channel program lineups on their Web sites.

Also addressing Ohio stations’ business models in her study, Ha found that 68 percent of them haven’t changed their programs when switching to one standard-definition digital channel—even though they could multicast several channels—and all but four (94 percent) have stayed with the “branded content/brand integration” model of either sticking with the same programming, repackaging it—as 24-hour weather in most cases—or broadcasting in high definition.

With increased numbers of cable and satellite households, and more multi-set households than before, Ha said the DTV transition presents potential problems—for viewers and stations alike—stemming from consumers having more options. Having a digital TV set will take care of most of the possible problems, she said, but it’s costly and “the government has totally underestimated the complexity of the switch, oversimplifying it instead.”

Although more than $1.2 billion has been spent on it, “DTV education is a big mess because they don’t know what they should tell people and don’t advise consumers how to choose from the different options,” according to Ha. 

And the transition delay approved by Congress will be beneficial, she said, “only when the education effort is changed and addressed to the variety of consumer TV setups and local situations.”

February 9, 2009