You could hear the collective gasp from the entire television broadcast industry when Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, off-handedly suggested that the analog shutoff scheduled for Feb. 17, 2009, might need to be delayed. Delay the analog shutoff that's been planned for, what, more than 12 years, with billions invested by TV stations? Why?
During a brief off-stage question-and-answer session, the National Journal reported that Dingell expressed reservations that all of the 1700 stations and millions of consumers might not be fully prepared for the death of analog broadcasting — as though he would know anything about the process. Dingell was, of course, referring to the Republican-created plan to offer two vouchers valued at $40 each to viewers without cable or satellite service, so they can purchase STBs. He claimed to be concerned that retailers might not have sufficient supplies or be able to properly redeem the STB coupons in a timely manner.
When asked about Dingell's comment, NAB spokesman Dennis Warton said, “We want to avoid a train wreck.” That's Washington political speak for “We warned you about this in the beginning. But no, you wouldn't listen. And now you want us to bail you out? No thanks! You dug your hole. Now deal with it.”
Dingell and his cohort on the Energy and Commerce Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, chairman Edward Markey, D-MA, have complained that the $1.5 billion planned for the STB program is insufficient. They say they just need more money. Where have we heard that line before?
So, what's behind this sudden change in heart? Wasn't Congress euphoric over the billions of dollars the spectrum sale would generate? So much money to spend and so little time to do so. Then why delay the shutoff now?
I think Democrats are concerned about getting blamed for the disaster resulting from 1200 analog transmitters suddenly going dark on Feb. 17, 2009. Can you spell “angry voters”?
It shouldn't surprise anyone that a member of Congress is afraid of being blamed for anything, let alone being held responsible for up to 21 million homes losing their television! Can you imagine the firestorm that would descend on Washington, D.C.?
There would be a million-viewer march on the capital so fast that the network satellite trucks couldn't get there first. All 540 members of Congress would be fighting each other for space in one of those D.C. bomb shelters to hide from angry TV viewers.
And, if the new president were, say a Democrat, the debacle would be blamed on her — ahem, or him. And that wouldn't be a good thing to happen early in a president's first term.
The truth is that Dingell and his cohorts are just posturing to throw more money at the problem, hoping that'll buy them some cover when the bottom falls out and millions of homes suddenly have no television. Changing the rules of the game isn't new to Washington politics. This time, however, Congress just might get the blame it deserves for its incompetence.
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