Expert View

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Mason Essif
Senior Vice President
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While we all know that on February 17th, 2009 the nation will convert to digital television – the National Association of Broadcasters estimates awareness at 96% – how many know that the transition will allow the nation’s television stations to broadcast multiple channels of content? For example, your local channel 7 can start broadcasting channel 7.1, 7.2 and 7.3. Their programming potential will quadruple.

As a media relations professional, I thought these additional programming opportunities and how they might benefit our clients would be important to explore.

So I recently brought together a panel of experts at our Ogilvy PR Washington, DC office. It included: Jonathan Collegio of the National Association of Broadcasters, Christopher Lane of WETA Public Television, Kim Hart of the Washington Post and Amos Gelb of George Washington University. They discussed what might drive and shape the potential of these so-called new channels of communication.

One reality is that according to Nielsen the average U.S. home now receives a record 118 TV channels but the average subscriber watches only about 17 channels regularly. One colleague laments the difficulty surfing through a hundred channels to find one worth watching.

These new digital TV channels will be competing in an already crowded marketplace. Jonathan Collegio contends broadcasters already know how to produce the shows people want to watch. Even today, the highest rated TV shows are on broadcasting, not cable. In the end, the bar for new content to be interesting and entertaining will be high.

Second, today’s economic climate can either help or hurt. Ad revenue for broadcasting is down and stations have been cutting staff. It is doubtful that these stations will put money and resources into additional channels to attract new viewers. But conversely, Kim Hart believes many budget conscious consumers might drop cable - at an average of $60 a month - to give free over-the-air high definition television a try. Either way, public relations professionals will have an unprecedented opportunity to influence these new channels if we can produce programming that broadcasters will want to run and consumers will want to watch.

Lastly it is important to recognize that Hispanics get 40% of their news, information and entertainment from free over-the-air programs. Smart television stations are already using their new channels to serve this community. LATV is one of the first companies producing content for digital TV by providing bilingual music and entertainment programming to more than 30 affiliated stations across the country including ones in New York, Chicago and Dallas. Smart PR people whose clients want to reach this growing population will develop relationships with these new content providers to learn how to influence future programming.

For PR professionals, February 17th will bring dramatic changes to the communications landscape. To us, the switch to digital means more than buying a converter box.

Mason Essif is a Senior Vice President at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide and previously spent twenty years as a broadcast journalist and television producer for major national broadcast outlets.