The transition to digital broadcasting is the biggest thing to hit television since color. To make sure it goes smoothly, the Federal Communications Commission wants to do a test run.
The digital shift will happen nationwide next February. Viewers who don't have a digital set and watch shows via an antenna will lose their picture unless they buy a converter box.
The changeover has members of Congress and the FCC worried that irate viewers with no picture will direct their anger at Washington.
FCC commissioner Michael Copps suggested a test run in certain markets, prior to the national shift, would be a good idea. He explained his idea Monday in a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
"Broadway shows open on the road to work out the kinks before opening night," he wrote. "The DTV transition deserves no less."
Copps noted that other countries, like the United Kingdom, have made the shift in stages and that the "single transition date does not afford us the luxury of a built-in learning curve."
Martin, in a reply letter, said Copps had presented some "interesting ideas that I am in favor of pursuing, including switching a small number of test markets to all-digital service before February 17, 2009."
On Feb. 18, all full-power broadcast television stations will stop transmitting an analog signal. Viewers with cable or satellite television will not be affected. Over-the-air viewers will need a converter box, which the government will help pay for.
A test run would present challenges, Martin noted. It would require the "voluntary participation of an entire community or market." Martin said he will ask the agency's digital transition task force to begin exploring how such field tests could be done.
Also on Monday, the agency released its long-awaited plan to educate consumers about the digital shift.
The plan requires broadcasters to air public service announcements and "crawls" that run across the bottom of the screen informing consumers of the shift.
Commercial broadcasters were given the option of adopting an FCC plan or one put forward by the National Association of Broadcasters. Last October, the NAB unveiled a voluntary public service campaign it valued at $697 million.
The broadcast lobbying group had resisted mandatory education requirements by the agency, saying they violate the First Amendment.
Public television stations have the option of following a plan put forward by the Association of Public Television Stations. It requires public education spots, which will increase in frequency as the transition date approaches.
The plan also calls for cable and satellite operators to provide monthly notices about the transition in their customer billing statements. It also requires makers of televisions to "provide notice to consumers of the transition's impact" on their products.