Analog Shutoff Shuffle Continues

The end of analog broadcasting increasingly resembles a double-dare that no one quite takes. Once the subsidy program to keep TVs alive was tapped out last week, letters started flying across the nation’s capital to the effect that delaying the deadline was in order. Congress two years ago ordered that all analog broadcast TV transmissions would cease as of this Feb. 17. That was after all analog broadcast TV transmissions were supposed to cease Dec. 31, 2006, but the country really wasn’t ready back then. Now, it’s only sort of not ready.

The Consumers Union started the letter-writing campaign with notes to key members of Congress suggesting a delay. Those Congress members in turn started harrumphing about it to the point where the incoming Administration issued a likewise correspondence advocating a delay. After years of orchestration under mostly Republican control, the actual analog deadline falls just 28 days after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

Obama transition co-chief, John Podesta, addressed his own missive to Sens. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas); and to Reps. Henry Waxman (D.- Calif.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), urging them to cut loose the money necessary to subsidize more digital-to-analog converter boxes. A total of $1.5 billion was set aside for the program in the deadline bill, but it fell on hard times last week. The portion spent on the $40 coupons good toward converter boxes ran out. And while millions of those coupons have either expired or are sitting in someone’s drawer somewhere, the agency in charge of the program can’t issue more until lawmakers waive the so-called “Anti-deficiency Act.”

The National Association of Broadcasters then got into the game, issuing a statement that TV stations are fine with the deadline, thank you very much, particularly since they’ll save several thousands dollars in power bills once analog transmitters are shut off. (“Thousands” from the perspective of broadcast stocks in the $2 range.) Then the Big Four networks reportedly said they’d be fine with a delay. Then a pair of former FCC chiefs, apparently forgetting that there is a current FCC chief, wrote an op-ed published in The New York Times supporting a delay, noting that even if people ordered $40 subsidy coupons now, they’d not arrive before Feb. 17.

Then actual FCC chief Chairman Kevin Martin stood up and said, ahem, let’s stick with the program here, saying a delay would just confuse everyone expecting Feb. 17 to be transition day. Speaking in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show last week, Martin said millions of coupons could be issued immediately just by lifting the 90-day expiration date originally required by Congress.

Meanwhile, Hawaii is counting down to its own end date of Jan. 15, established to avoid disruption to the habitat of a native island water fowl. Hawaii will be the first state to make a complete switch to digital TV. The NBC affiliate there, KHNL, reports that of the 45,000 coupons issued in the state, less than half have been redeemed.