DTV ad gets mileage in race car crash: FCC chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A nine-car NASCAR pileup may have wrecked a vehicle sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, but it gave the agency more mileage in advertising the imminent switch to digital TV signals, the FCC’s chief said on Monday.

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The FCC spent about $350,000 to sponsor the car in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing event on Sunday, to advertise the TV signal switch mandated by U.S. lawmakers to free up airwaves for public users such as police and fire departments.

NASCAR driver David Gilliland accidentally crashed the car in the Arizona race.

Asked if it was a bad omen for the switch, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told reporters it was more of a silver lining. “Except for the cars that win the races, the cars that are in wrecks get a lot of attention,” he said.

With 100 days before the old analog signals disappear, the FCC, broadcast officials and consumer groups are stepping up efforts to educate millions of consumers about what they need to do to prevent their sets from going dark.

About 15 percent of all households in the United States use only analog TV sets and would risk their screens going black as analog signals are turned off, according to the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog.

Owners of analog TV sets can buy a converter box to receive a digital signal. They can get a $40 coupon from the government to subsidize the cost by going to:

Martin, a Republican named by U.S. President George W. Bush, deflected questions about whether he would stay on when President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.

“I don’t have any plans to go anywhere yet,” Martin said. In response to a question, he said he might consider staying on for a longer period of time to help with the digital transition.

Martin said he has not spoken with anyone from the Obama transition team.

If Martin left, it would leave the FCC in the voting hands of two Democrats and one Republican, because the term of a second Republican commissioner, Deborah Taylor Tate, expires soon.

Appointment of a new FCC chair is not expected to be Obama’s top priority, amid a sinking economy and the financial crisis, so one of the two Democrats will likely be interim chairman for a while.

About 34 million converter box coupons have been requested from the government, according to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, whose agency administers the coupon program.

But only about 14 million have redeemed the coupons, he said.

“A lot of people will be taking action very late,” said David Rehr, head of the National Association of Broadcasters which represents big networks, such as Walt Disney Co’s ABC and General Electric Co’s NBC.

Consumers are encouraged to get the boxes early to test them out. Some sets may need an extra antennae to be functional.

Reporting by Kim Dixon, editing by Richard Chang