Broadcasters' team to launch PR blitz on digital conversion

Warning the millions of households with rabbit ears atop their TV sets and antennae in their attics that they must switch to digital television or risk a distinct dimming of their living rooms is a huge task. One that may call for more than a plain-vanilla PR blitz. A national political campaign on the Feb. 18, 2009 digital conversion deadline is more like it.

Warning the millions of households with rabbit ears atop their TV sets and antennae in their attics that they must switch to digital television or risk a distinct dimming of their living rooms is a huge task. One that may call for more than a plain-vanilla PR blitz. A national political campaign on the Feb. 18, 2009 digital conversion deadline is more like it.

That’s why the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has recruited a team of Capitol Hill and political-journalism veterans and approved a preliminary budget in the millions for the job.

Jonathan Collegio, who has served as press secretary to the National Republican Congressional Committee and deputy chief of staff for Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), will join the trade group, as will a former communications director for the Congressional Black Caucus, Myra Dandridge.

Also coming on board are Lale Mamaux, a former press secretary for Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) who also managed media relations for Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.), and Shermaze Ingram, a former reporter with “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” who comes from Discovery Communications.

With about 73 million analog TV sets in the U.S. perhaps becoming obsolete with the change, the team has plenty of work ahead.

“We have two years to run it, like a [political] campaign. We have a great candidate in digital television. And we’re going to be aggressive about spreading our candidate’s message, as we would in a political campaign,” Collegio said.

Congress decreed the 2009 drop-dead date in order to speed the transition to digital television. The goal of the legislation, which passed in 2005, is partly to free up spectrum that the federal government can auction to other technologies, although much of that spectrum will be handed back to broadcasters.

Roughly 19.6 million households receive only free, over-the-air television and 34 million have at least an analog television. If those viewers don’t buy a converter box to facilitate the reception of digital signals, purchase a new TV or switch to cable or satellite, their televisions will go dark when the deadline passes.

The National Telecom and Information Administration plans to dole out up to $1.5 billion in $40 coupons for the converter boxes, and has set aside $5 million to publicize the program.

The NAB is stepping in to make the P.R. push because the association would bear the brunt of the blame from angry consumers who did not get the message about the conversion, according to Art Brodsky, the communications director for Public Knowledge, a media and telecom think tank.

“It’s in their best interest to do so,” he said.

To get the message out, the NAB will be organizing a coalition that includes the Association of Public Television Stations, the consumer electronics industry and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR). Spreading the information through such LCCR members as the AARP and the NAACP will be crucial to reaching the bulk of the households receiving only over-the-air broadcasts, Collegio said.

A secondary objective of the campaign is to promote broadcast over cable and satellite, Wharton said.

“We think there is a good chance to reverse the mindset hat has seeped into Americans that you have to pay for television service,” he said.