Spanish-language media urge FCC to support delaying digital transition
By SEAN GAFFNEY The (McAllen) Monitor Jan. 13, 2009
MCALLEN — Local Spanish-language television stations told a federal official Monday the switch to digital television must be delayed, arguing that too many border area residents are unprepared for the Feb. 17 transition.
English-language stations argued that postponing the switch would further confuse consumers without alleviating the problems that have plagued the government-mandated transition.
Their Spanish-language counterparts, meanwhile, have concerns their profits will fall if the switch goes forward as planned, according to TV executives who participated in a Monday conference call with Robert McDowell, one of five members of the Federal Communications Commission.
The differences of opinion reflect a longstanding division among area broadcasters.
“At some point, you’ve got to move on,” said William Jorn, the general manager for KVEO Channel 23, the local NBC affiliate. “In the scheme of what’s happening globally, I think that there are probably some issues of greater significance.”
President-elect Barack Obama and some consumer groups, however, have urged Congress to push back the switch date over concerns about the availability of converter boxes and the distribution of $40 coupons to purchase the device.
Related: Limited availability of DTV coupons frustrates Valley residents
McDowell and the four other FCC commissioners, meanwhile, are reaching out to “at-risk” TV markets ahead of the current date for the switch.
With nearly 34 percent of TV viewers in the Rio Grande Valley relying on analog signals — and with a majority Hispanic population in which many residents speak only Spanish — officials fear many people in the Valley will be marginalized by the changeover.
Local Spanish-language media will likely suffer a loss in ratings after the transition, since their demographic includes the poorer Valley residents who are less likely to be prepared for the switch.
Executives fear people who don’t make the change will flock to Mexican broadcasters with analog signals that reach the Valley. English-language broadcasters counter that the transition will be difficult no matter when it takes place.
Sam Vale, president of the local Telemundo affiliate, said aside from concerns about the marginalized not having access to important public safety announcements, he’s concerned about advertising revenue — especially when TV executives are already watching advertising dollars fall nearly every week.
“When you’re in the middle of the economic crisis ... that’s major revenue to all the local stations,” Vale said of the sagging income due to viewers who aren’t making the transition.
“It’s not an acceptable number regardless of what the economics are to the broadcasting industry,” he said of the number of viewers who will be left on the fringe. “The airwaves belong to the public. We are not serving the public under that scenario.”
Signals And Borders
Chris Julian, president and chief executive officer of Advertir, a McAllen-based marketing and advertising consultancy, said the profit concerns of Spanish-language media are valid.
Mexican media titan Televisa, a company that his business contracts with, is already telling advertisers that it expects its ratings to rise after the transition as one of a few media outlets that will continue broadcasting analog signals into the United States, he said.
“Broadcast signals don’t recognize borders or the Rio Grande Valley,” Julian noted.
The elderly and poor, groups typically marginalized by new technologies, are expected to be disproportionately affected by the switch. So, too, are Hispanics.
According to a recent study by Nielsen Media Research, 11.5 percent of Hispanic households aren’t ready for the changeover, compared to 6.2 percent of non-Hispanics. Though the comparison is troublesome, the slice of unprepared Hispanics is still far smaller than the 14.4 percent who said they weren’t ready in May, said Anne Elliot, a Nielsen spokeswoman.
Local media outlets have been at odds over the issue since the Senate approved the DTV Border Fix Act of 2008, executives said.
Introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the legislation allows broadcasters within 50 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico to use an analog signal for an additional four years. A similar bill has effectively been stalled in a House committee since September.
John Kittleman, general manager for KRGV Channel 5, the local ABC affiliate, said the English-language broadcasters opposed the measure because it would keep the Valley behind the rest of the country and not really address problems with the transition.
“There wouldn’t be a coupon program in five years. There wouldn’t be a nationwide education push,” Kittleman said. “Don’t carve out the Valley and El Paso and these other border markets and make them stepchildren to the rest of the country.”
The FCC’s McDowell spoke with TV executives Monday as part of a report he is helping to prepare on communities at risk of being left behind by the transition. Congress set the date of the switch, and any change in that date requires congressional approval.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin has argued against changing the date, saying doing so would confuse consumers and hurt TV stations that have already spent years, and money, preparing for the transition.
Sean Gaffney covers business, the economy and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4434.