National Press Club

Finnish Official Says Firm Date, Resolve Help Digital Switchover

October 20, 2008 | By Mark Schoeff Jr.

Setting a firm date and holding consumers to the deadline will help make the switch over to digital television next year in the United States a smooth operation, according to a Finnish official who guided his country through a similar process.

Mikael Jungner, director general of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, was the point person for Finland’s transformation, which occurred on March 1. On that date each of the country’s 2.5 million households had to be geared up for digital TV, a change that would provide more channels and higher quality reception.

Most of the transformation did not happen until just before the deadline, according to Jungner. “It was one to two weeks before and one to two weeks after,” he said at a Press Club Newsmaker on Oct. 17.

About one year before the switch over, half of the households converted to digital reception. The rest jumped on board just at or after the deadline.

In the run up to the switch over, Jungner was a voice in the wilderness. He had been designated as the face of the process, but there was too little money for a comprehensive campaign to change hearts and minds.

The decision made by the government was, “Let’s do it by force,” Jungner said.

The process generated opposition in parliament. “The politicians, the communications CEOs, they were gone,” Jungner said. “There was no one else standing up fighting.”

Jungner doggedly made the case in newspapers and over the airwaves. He was the first in the world to do so because Finland was the first country to make the switch.

“This is a bomb you can’t defuse,” he said. “It will go off. And it did.”

But in the end, the transition was sanguine, not hostile. Nearly all Fins came to embrace their new digital television capability. “Two weeks after the switch over, (the resistance) was a non-issue,”
Jungner said.

Although Finland is much smaller than the United States—with about 5 million people spread out over an area the size of California—the primary lesson it learned in its digital TV switch over can be applied here.

“You should have an exact date,” Jungner said.

The United States has met that challenge, setting February 17 as the day when the 34 million households that currently receive TV over the air or through non-compatible cable or satellite means will have to switch to digital devices.