For The Record - Digital Television Transition Information - | News, Weather & Sports in Billings, Montana

For The Record - Digital Television Transition Information

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Good morning, everybody, I'm Greg LaMotte with KULR-8 news, you are watching For the Record and joining me this morning, in at least our business is someone you really have to watch your language around, his name is Robert McDowell, he's a Federal Communications Commissioner and depending on which side of the fence you're on, it could either be, you know, godly or the devil himself.

Well, I don't know about either of those two extremes, all I'll say is I'm a human being. Hey, welcome. Thanks so much. We appreciate you stopping by. It's an honor to have you here. Thanks so much, it's great to be here. You are traveling the countryside, trying to get folks educated about what? The digital television transition. Broadcasters right now, today, are broadcasting in digital and so if folks are receiving their signal on their TV through an antenna, either the old rabbit ears antenna or rooftop antenna, they will need to get a converter box and this is a converter box, I brought one right here, to translate those new digital signals back into the old analog language, for their old analog television set. And if they do, they will get a better picture quality, better sound quality and they'll be able to receive multicast channels, these new channels that these broadcasters are broadcasting right now and that will be for free, over the air, more channels.

And Robert, what happens if they don't get this box? Well, if they don't, by February 17th – actually, midnight on February 17, 2009, by act of congress, broadcasters must shut off their old analog signals. So if you do nothing, you'll have nothing but static on your television come February 18th. So we're really encouraging folks to act today, to get one of these boxes hooked up to their TV today, so they can enjoy DTV today. So the FCC sends you out on the road to make sure that everybody gets the word because, you know, even I guarantee, people are going to be watching the show today, they're going to forget about this and then come February, they're going to be upset. Exactly and the FCC identified 81 markets across the county -- 81 TV markets that are sort of disproportionately affected by the DTV transition.

And there are four markets in Montana that have a high percentage, you know, 17, 20, 25 percent of residents who watch TV, have a TV set with an antenna, what we call over the air only. So in other words, they're not getting their signal through cable or maybe satellite. And so we wanted to raise awareness -- and thank you so much for doing this interview and I hope folks are going to pay attention -- the government also did set up a subsidy program for folks, to help go towards the purchase of these boxes. And you can get a coupon – I brought a coupon here just for a sample, two $40 coupons per household is what the budget calls for. And if people cal 1-888-dtv-2009, that's a toll-free number, they can apply for these coupons.

Also, if they have internet access or if they can go to their local library and access the internet there, they can go to and hopefully you folks will put this information up on the screen and order the coupons there. They take about three weeks to arrive, but the do expire in 90 days and that's by an act of congress, it's in the statute. It's in the US CODE that they have to expire in 90 days, so folks should act right away. But you don't need the coupon to get the box, you can just go buy the box today, all the electronics retailers should have them. What's a box generally go for? They go for anywhere from – there's one that I've heard of that's as low as $40, which means you're probably just paying for sales tax and they go as high as $80, lots of bells and whistles on the $80 version, which folks might feel like they don't need. Folks could also if they want to buy a new digital television. Sometimes there's confusion between digital television and high definition television and high definition television is actually sort of a subset of digital TV. So your old analog set with DTV won't all of a sudden become a high definition set, you have to buy a new high definition TV set in order to get that HD picture, which broadcasters are broadcasting today.

You know, there is some of us in this business that are a little afraid of this high definition stuff. Well, it does show up every maybe blemish or wrinkle in my case and every gray hair that folks might have, but it's a great experience to watch movies and sports and things. Robert, what is the genesis of this? Why are we having to do this? I mean, you know, why do we have acts of congress to change the way that we watch television? Excellent question, I get asked that all over the country, why is the government doing this to me? So congress passed something called the digital TV act of 2005 -- a funny point is it was actually signed in 2006, but that's Washington for you, they forgot to change the name of the bill -- but anyway, so it – they wanted broadcasters to go digital as soon as possible, because it's more efficient. And if you think about other parts of our society, your camera probably is not a film camera anymore, it's probably a digital camera, the resolutions of the pictures is better, you can e-mail the picture. We used to play vinyl records and then they went to CDs and now mp3 players. The fidelity of the sound is better if you do that.

With video, the quality of the video is sharper and clearer. And also, if you think of the radio waves, the airwaves that broadcasters use to broadcast their signal, think of that as an invisible rainbow of light, of invisible light that you can't see, if – with analog it takes let's say this much of that rainbow to transmit the old analog signal. With digital it takes only about this much to not only broadcast a better picture, but more channels and maybe one channel in high definition and a couple more channels in standard definition, what we call SD. So that frees up that other part of the spectrum, so congress said, let's auction that off for other new technologies and the best new technology that we know of will be wireless broadband services. So we auctioned it off earlier this year and rural states like Montana are really going to benefit from that because new licensees, new companies to the market can come in and build out wireless broadband and just like an old TV signal, these wireless broadband signals can go a long distance and can penetrate buildings and that's just fantastic for high band with high speed two-way internet access.

There are also going to be a lot of other technologies we can't even imagine. And then congress also set aside a little bit of the spectrum for public safety use as well. Is this going to make households more interactive? I think so in the long run; I'm very encouraged about the future of wireless technologies in general. I think broadcasters in the future will be able to – and they're experimenting right now with interactive services, so that we'll all be sort of one-way downstream from the broadcaster's view, there might be more interaction between the viewer and the broadcasters, which means you'll be up 24 hours a day responding to viewers e-mails and all the rest. But I think that will be good for your viewers. And I think it will be very, very exciting, we can't even imagine what's going to happen now.

But there will also be competition out there, even more competition than broadcasters have right now, because of the internet, you know, in American we download 13 billion on-line videos every month and that number's increasing by leaps and bounds, and more and more of those are full length TV episodes or newscasts or whatever. So it's very, very exciting. This new technology also will help with new wireless services -- mobile wireless services I should say, as your personal computer and your cell phones sort of merge into the same thing. You can be watching high definition television anywhere in a broadcast area and move it around with ease. This technology doesn't come without a price and it's very expensive and I know that, you know, max media, the group that owns kulr-8 is going to have to invest a heck of a lot of money in all of its stations to be able to make this transformation, how does, you know, do you expect businesses to make this kind of, you know, investment?

Right, well, they already have. I mean, you all have already invested a lot into the new digital transmitters. There are translators, which are sort of transmitters that are out in the more rural areas outside of town to kind of help throw the signal out farther to rural areas, so folks can watch it and those in many cases are being upgraded as well. And it does cost money, but it cost money to upgrade to color television, for instance. It costs money to upgrade to fm radio from am radio, so at the end of the day it, will hopefully pay for itself in the long run through new avenues for advertising, revenue or other types of revenue we can't quite imagine yet in different business models. Now the fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of people already are ready for this transition, right? No, actually – well, I mean, you know, there are not so many people using antennas anymore. I see. They do have television since they're already digital and they don't have anything to worry about, right?

The majority of folks don't have as much to worry about, but in the billings market, I've heard that it's between 17 and maybe 20 percent of the households are over the air only. So if you're hooked up to cable, you don't need to worry. If you're hooked up to one of the satellite companies, you don't need to worry. I'm not going to mention brand names, because I'm not supposed to. But if you're hooked up to one other one of the satellite companies, you'll probably have to get a converter box, because they're probably renting to you an antenna to pick up terrestrially, you know, through the earth, not airways, the local broadcast signals, rather than having them being from the satellite directly to your dish. So, check with your satellite provider or check with your broadcaster as well and they can tell you the difference. Well, televisions are considered by our standards, a big ticket item. Yep. And so it's not something that we buy once a year or once every couple of years, we buy it and we use it until it doesn't work anymore. Those who have older television sets, eight, nine, 10 years, might have something to worry about, right? They might. You know, I come from a very frugal family and we have some TV sets in my house that are probably 25 years old, we still have a black and white somewhere in my house, so – but you're absolutely – when we went to solid state, away from vacuum tubes, they started lasting longer.

But there is an incentive for folks, if they can afford to do so, to buy a new digital television here with this transition and because of high definition television, so that may be coming more. And what will – I know you touched on it a minute ago, but what will this allow the viewer to do that he can't do now? Well, it will allow them -- other than getting the signal. They can go – to get the signal, that's important to broadcasters, obviously. But these new multi-cast channels are – if you have an old analog set, you don't even know they exist, probably and so the same broadcaster, channel eight probably has a couple of other multi-cast channels, I imagine. Maybe one of them is a weather channel, the broadcasters are doing all news channels or community access or community service type – public service type channels or channels where you can air more local high school football games. I think the programming potential there is endless. The sky's the limit in terms of what kinds of business models are going to crop up as a result of this.

But the point there also is consumers will have a lot more channels, maybe triple the number of channels that they have today, but for free, over the air. So this will be a direct head-to-head competitor with pay TV, like cable and satellite and that's going to be a big deal to consumers. And all of this happens when? February? Well, it's happening now, so one thing if folks remember nothing else I tell them about digital television, they should get their box today. They should wire it up to their TV today, because digital TV is actually happening today. I would really hope that folks don't wait until close to February 17th, because that's when analog gets shut off and that's not when digital begins, that's when analog ends. And so folks should just get setup now, they might need to iron out some wrinkles, there are some antenna issues sometimes as well when folks hook these up and they scan for the channels. You have to use the box to scan, to find out which channels are occupied and there can be some antenna issues. You might need to adjust your antenna. It might be you don't have the right kind of antenna, in which case you can go to your favorite electronics retailer and get a new antenna for about $25 or $30 or so.

Does that mean that if I got the box today and I get my television via antenna, that once I hook it up, I will have triple the amount of stations than I did before? You should, if everything is working properly. Now one thing I should point out, look for a box that has these words on it "analog pass through", analog pass through, that's because there are some low powered TV stations, community broadcasters, (inaudible) stuff like that, as well as some of these translators I was talking about in rural areas that are still allowed to broadcast in analog, while full powered TV stations, such as channel 8 will have to shut off, these other stations can continue to broadcast in analog. So get an analog pass through box. Most of the boxes are analog pass through boxes, but make sure you do that. The box itself looks pretty simple. Yep. Do you have to be a rocket scientist to make this conversion? You do not. I'm going to hold this up; hopefully the folks can see it. Basically you have a wire that goes from your antenna into one of these jacks and then you have another wire that comes out into your TV – the antenna jack into your TV. And then, of course, don't forget to plug it in. So we have gotten some calls, it doesn't work and people forgot to plug it in.

Now these other ones, are these for VHS and – that's for audio/visual interfacing, exactly and it does get a little bit more complicated when you start dealing with your VCR. But folks should try to just unplug the VCR or a minute and get it working and then they can worry about interfacing with their VCR, if they have one. So take it, you know, in baby steps until you're comfortable, so that the VCR doesn't complicate things, that's what I'd recommend. And then when it's all up and running, try to rewire it with your VCR. Now you were talking about going from vinyl to CD, let's not forget the 8-track tape now. There you go. One of the greatest inventions of all times. The 70s are not dead, they live on, exactly. Ladies and gentlemen, we got to take a break, but we will be right back.

Hi, everybody, I'm Greg LaMotte with kulr-8 news, you're watching for the record, welcome back. I get the rare opportunity for the first time in my 30-year career to actually sit down with an FCC commissioner. So I'd like to switch gears a little – in a good context, right? Yeah. Sometimes that can be nerve-racking. Well, we want to get to the other side now. Okay. We were having a conversation out in the newsroom about the evolution of television. And we were thinking, there are words that are said on television today that had they been said in the context of me sitting in my living room with my family, that if they'd been said then – and I'm not that old, really, I'm really not that old -- but if they had been said then, the television probably would of gone out the window and likely parents would of gone to the local television station and burned it down. How is it that we are getting to that point in time, is it all society or what? You raise a very important point; this comes before the FCC a lot. You know, I'm the father of three young children and so this is a concern for us in the McDowell household. The overall sort of the coarsening of the content that folks see on TV and of course there are different statutory and constitutional standards governing the indecency regulatory framework for broadcasters, versus cable TV and that's a big difference. My second week on the job as a commissioner in June of '06, I was invited to a bill signing ceremony at the white house with the rest of the FCC, where president bush signed into law a statute that actually increased the fines on broadcasters by ten-fold for airing indecent content. And this bill pass congress overwhelmingly; republicans, democrats, very few opposed it and so the directly elected representatives of the American people said this is a big priority for them.

Congress did not change the statutory standards by which we're supposed to judge what is indecent or not, but they made it very clear that this is important to society. So we do have some cases pending at various appeals court, including the Supreme Court to try to help clarify for us and the American people what is acceptable content to be aired during the hours which children are likely to be present. There is a safe harbor time period of 10:00 PM to 6:00 am where historically the commission and congress and the courts have said, children are not likely to be viewing at those hours, so the standards are more relaxed. But it is a big issue and I think the good news is technology is giving parents more choice to filter out objectionable content. I talked about earlier how 13-billion video downloads each month from the Internet, that can be good and bad but the first and last line of defense for all this should be parents. And in the McDowell household, we don't have our kids watch TV on school nights. We have no TVs in bedrooms, just TVs in the family rooms, so we can see what they're watching. The computer's in the family room as well, so we can see what they're doing on the Internet. Now, not all households are like that and parents can't be watching their kids 100 percent of the time, I understand that, but it's going to take all of us working together to try to shield our kids from objectionable content. Now if I can watch television over the Internet, are the rules changed? Excellent question, there's – this is going to be a big point of debate over the coming years. The internet, as well as cable TV is going to be viewed under a different constitutional standard, in that in both cases viewers can sort of poll the content of their choice when they want to. And there are also different technologies -- with cable, you can block channels that you find objectionable. Parents can buy software to filter out objectionable content – but not today, anyway, with the Internet, right? Yeah, you can buy software today to filter out objectionable content or just to say, my kids can only watch the following five websites, you know, things like that and they can't go anywhere else. So you can kind of keep them in a (inaudible) garden if you want. So there are more tools for parents and there are also more threats at the same time. So constitutionally though, if you're subscribing to a service, the courts have held that it's tougher for the government to try to regulate the content. So this will be the source of court fights for the rest of our lives, until we can get it right and there will always be a debate. You know, Robert, there was a time that three networks in the nation, maybe a thousand radio stations, now we have eight, nine, 10 networks, what, 10,000 radio stations? And I find it interesting that for years there were seven FCC commissioners and now you say they've trimmed that down to five. It's almost like, how much can you take? You know, how much can the FCC take and be an effective organization? Sure. Well, when it comes to the indecency matters, by the way, we are enforcement based. So folks file complaints with us and we act on those. If you ask the average person on the street, they think all FCC commissioners do all day is watch TV and blow the whistle if someone says something bad, that's not the way it works. So we're enforcement based, complaint driven. And yes, we're a wash in media and information from more sources than ever before, conveyed to us on more platforms owned by a diverse array of companies and individuals than ever, ever before. Some of that can be self-regulating. Congress back in the 80s trimmed us down to five commissioners from seven. We're still able to, you know, process complaints and then do our job, I think, with the five, because we have 2,000 very dedicated public servants who work at the FCC and they do most of the work, in terms of the day-to-day complaint process and all that. So we're doing our part, but there's, you know, always something more to consider. Now you're a lawyer by trade? Yes, I am. And I would imagine as these different media's emerge; different legal questions come into play, don't they? They do, as we pointed out just a second ago with the internet as to what legal standards can apply there and that will be the source of litigation for a long, long time to come. So congress wrestles with this and there's talk of regulating violence on television. Congress hasn't passed legislation to empower us to regulate violence on TV, probably because the thorny questions are, what is violence? And what is appropriate violence? Is a hockey game objectionable? Is the news objectionable if you're covering a war or something else that might be violent? How about a cartoon? There are cartoons that are funny and there are cartoons that aren't funny. So there are a lot of these tough calls that still haven't been made. And again, we will continue to have these discussions for many years to come. Robert, what – if you know, what would be a typical complaint that you get every year? From consumers? Yeah. Oh, they run the gamut from objectionable content on television, frequently from viewers watching cable -- and of course, we are not empowered to do anything about objectionable content on cable -- to folks having trouble with their internet service provider or with their phone company. So they run the gamut. We get thousands and thousands of complaints from consumers every year and they run the gamut of just about everything you can imagine. Are there complaints in the news arena? There are sometimes, you know, and there's, you know, in my personal opinion, if you are talking about bias in the news or things of that nature that such and such broadcasts – or violence on television from war scenes – violence on television. Yep, exactly. So you know, again, we can't we're not empowered by statute to regulate violence. We certainly want to have a healthy political discourse and debate, whether it's through the news or opinion shows and there's the first amendment there to protect broadcasters and everyone else to voice their opinion as they see fit and to encourage debate. So when folks talk about bias in the news or whatever, the FCC really doesn't get into that business. You know, I really had no idea that you had no control over the cable industry. Right, nope. There's nothing in the statute that says we can enforce our indecency statutes or indecency rules against cable. You mean all those years that I worked for a news organization that was on cable – you could of swore – I could of said anything I wanted? Swore like a sailor, had you known. I did not know that. You didn't know that, yeah. But Mr. Turner might not have been happy. Yeah. Well, maybe? I heard Mr. Turner – swear like a sailor? Yeah, he was kind of like that. Is he? I didn't know that, okay. Now just so our audience knows, a little bit of background about you. Sure. Well, I'm an attorney by training. I spent 16 years in the private sector counseling entrepreneurs, small start-ups in the telecommunication space; so Internet service providers, competitive, local phone companies and that was the thrust of my training. But I went to law school originally, because an interest in mass media law and the first amendment, but the winds of fate sort of blew me into the telephone and Internet side of things. And I got a call one night in November of 2005, out of the blue, asking me if I wanted to be an FCC commissioner. This is nothing I ever pursued, so I'm sort of the accidental commissioner and here I am, having a great time.

Now after January 1st, do you still remain an FCC commissioner? I do. Actually, the FCC is an independent regulatory agency and we're not part of the executive branch or the legislative branch or the judicial branch. We're appointed by the president and we're confirmed by the senate, but we all have terms that expire at different times. So the president can't fire us, we can only be impeached by the senate and knock on wood, hopefully that won't happen. And my term expires June 30, of '09. And can you be – I can be reappointed if I'm so lucky, yes.

Well, before you go, I have to ask you, we were having a conversation out in the newsroom, George Carlin made seven words very famous that you cannot say on television. Yes. But commissioner, I can't remember what those seven words are, can you refresh – if I told you, I'd have to end up fining myself, so how would that work? I don't know. Commissioner Robert McDowell, thank you so much for coming by and getting us squared away on this new transition to digital and it's very important the work you're doing right now. It is, get your box today.

There you go. Don't forget. All right. Hey, everybody, thanks so much for joining us, I hope you have a super week ahead and in the meantime, bye-bye everybody.