Vetterkind: Busy times for broadcasters amidst economic troubles and ‘historic’ switch to digital transmission

By Brian E. Clark


Michelle Vetterkind, president of the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, has been putting in some long weeks leading up to Tuesday’s switch to digital-only television (DTV) by many stations.

That doesn’t mean she’ll be cutting back on her workload, however.

About half the stations around the state will delay the change – which means clearer pictures and sound – until June 12, thanks to a four-month extension for the switch-over granted by Congress.

Come summer, Vetterkind figures she might be able to take a well-deserved vacation.

“Maybe we’ll be able to let up some before June 12, but we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

She also has some other serious issues on her plate, due to the sputtering economy that has reduced advertising to almost all media outlets and forced many radio and TV stations to lay off staff.

Vetterkind said broadcasters are struggling with reduced ad revenues. Car companies, hard hit by sales drops, have cut back their advertising significantly.

“Just like with any business now, it’s a tough time, but we are working with local clients to get them through,” she said. “But broadcasters are embedded in their communities and they will survive because of their community involvement.”

She said radio and television stations have expanded into web sites and are doing well with advertising there.

Vetterkind, who has been president of the broadcasters’ group for two years, calls the switch from analog to DTV an “historical event, even more so than the switch from black-and-white to color.”

With that change, viewers could still watch their old TV sets, she said.

“Television sets, if you will, didn’t go dark,” she said. “You simply had to buy a new TV when you wanted to receive color. But this is an unprecedented event. It’s huge.”

Vetterkind called the change “exciting” because of additional multi-casting channels that the switch allows.

She said the majority of Wisconsin TV stations have been broadcasting in digital and analog for the past year.

“If someone would have gotten a TV set with a digital tuner in it a year ago, or if they were to hook up a converter box, for months now they would have been able to receive the benefit of DTV,” she said.

“What we are talking about now … is turning off the analog signal,” she explained. “The digital will continue, but the analog is being turned off.”

Some TV stations in test markets around the United States turned off their analog prior to Tuesday — Hawaii stations shut it down in January — with approval of the Federal Communications Commission, she said.

As of Tuesday, she said about half of Wisconsin’s stations will drop their analog signals, while the others will wait until around the extended date of June 12, she said.

Though the change to digital has been in the news for a long time, Vetterkind said she worries that some people’s TVs will go dark because of the switch.

“I think no matter when the switch would be, this would happen,” she said. “If it’s June 12 or five years from now, there would always be a small percentage who … wait until the last minute.

“Some will go dark and at that point they will either have to purchase a converter box or a television with a digital tuner. But I do think that Wisconsin television stations have done a wonderful job of notifying the public of what is happening by providing phone banks and doing tests in all the markets.”

She said stations received hundreds and thousands of calls every night they did those tests.

“Stations have done a phenomenal job to alert viewers as to what is happening,” she said. “Ironically, a lot of the callers are saying ‘will you get that crawl off my screen. I know it’s happening Feb. 17.’ But of course, those crawls are mandated by the federal government.”

Vetterkind said cable subscribers and satellite viewers who have the local package will not be affected by the switch to digital.

But she said 23 percent of Wisconsin households receive their signals from antennas via an over-the-air signal. That figure is the third highest in the country, in part because the Badger State has a large rural population.