WASHINGTON A pending mandatory switch of all U.S. televisions to digital will be messy, a federal communications official said on Tuesday, urging broadcasters to step up local efforts to educate the public.
Broadcasters have the most to lose if viewers' screens fade to black when analog signals are turned off, said Robert McDowell, a Republican on the five-member Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urging broadcasters to tailor informational campaigns to local markets.
Congress ordered the switch to digital, effective February 17, to free up public airwaves for other uses, such as for police and fire departments.
Despite a wide-ranging education campaign by the government and broadcasters, consumers are likely to face glitches, McDowell said.
"The transition will be messy ... but we will get through it," he said.
About 15 percent of U.S. households use only analog TV sets and could risk their screens going black as analog signals are turned off, according to the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog group. Owners of analog televisions must buy a TV converter box to receive a digital signal.
The digital transition will not impact TV sets that are connected to cable service, according to the FCC.
Broadcasters should target their advertising based on the technical needs of local markets, McDowell said. In some markets, for example, consumers are more likely to require new antennas for their converter boxes to work, he said.
Regulators are offering consumers $40 coupons to help pay for converter boxes, but have no plan to manage an anticipated last-minute frenzy of consumer demand for the coupons, the GAO said last month.
Big networks, such as Walt Disney Co's ABC, General Electric's NBC, and CBS Corp own some local stations, usually in big markets.
A host of other companies like Hearst-Argyle Television, Inc, McClatchy Co and the Washington Post also own local affiliates.
FCC commissioners are traveling the country to educate local officials and broadcasters about the switch. McDowell just returned from Montana, Oklahoma and Alaska.
The GAO report said regulators are unprepared for an expected surge in demand for government help from consumers needing to switch.
(Reporting by Kim Dixon; editing by Susan Kelly)