It began last week with a letter from the Consumers Union to President Bush and President-elect Obama asking for a delay in the Feb. 17 digital shutdown of analog television. Then, almost suddenly, the issue turned into a firestorm.
By week’s end, President-elect Obama’s transition team agreed with the consumer group, urging Congress to extend the Feb. 17 cutoff date for analog broadcasting. The four major networks then agreed, joined by a prominent pair of former FCC chairmen, and a litany of political figures.
However, even with the building support, it remains unclear whether Congress can — or will — stop the shutdown of analog broadcasting now scheduled for a little over a month away.
John D. Podesta, chairman of the Obama transition team, echoed the Consumers Union by saying the Congressional financing of $1.34 billion to support the change is “woefully inadequate” and there’s “insufficient support” for the changeover. In a letter to Congressional leaders, Podesta said a federal coupon program for discounts on the cost of converter boxes has, at least temporarily, run out of funds, forcing more than 1 million coupon requests to be put on a waiting list.
Podesta noted that the number of requests — possibly hundreds of thousands each day — could overwhelm the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is running the program. The coupons are worth $40, and the most basic converters cost about $50.
Podesta also described the government’s plans to handle the expected rush of inquiries as Feb. 17 draws near as insufficient and indicated that President-elect Obama’s proposed stimulus package would include funds to address the problems.
“With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively-mandated analog cutoff date,” Podesta wrote to Congressional leaders.
Reacting to Podesta, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he would support delaying the analog cutoff “until we can do it right.” Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-MA, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, also agreed, calling such a delay “a wise choice.”
However, many Republicans and broadcasters disagreed with a delay. Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas said that “ditching the deadline” would amount to panic.
“We don’t need to bail out the DTV transition program because it isn’t failing, and reintroducing uncertainty to the switch will make things worse instead of better,” Barton, a ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, told the “New York Times.”
The NAB, representing broadcasters, said the transition should go on as scheduled. Spokesman Dennis Wharton said broadcasters nationwide are committed to being ready by Feb. 17 and strongly support a solution that would enable the government to continue making converter box coupons available to consumers who rely on free television.
“Broadcasters have been and will continue to be committed to doing everything in our power to make this transition work to ensure that viewers continue to have access to the important news and information that free, local television provides,” Wharton said.
Neither the Obama administration nor any of the lawmakers suggested the length of a potential delay. However, Chris Murray, senior counsel for the Consumers Union, told CNBC that the group has suggested a four-month extension. He said he thought it’s “a reasonably good chance” that Congress would enact such an extension. Nielsen Media Research estimates that 7.8 million households, representing 6.8 percent of homes with television, were not ready as of December because they had not upgraded any of their television sets. Unless members of those households purchase new TVs or converter boxes and better antennas, they will lose service when the analog signals are shut off.