Congress Urges Focus on the 'Unprepared'

As more and more American consumers get accustomed to the end of analog TV, key Congressional leaders today urged the government agency tasked with distributing the rest of the DTV converter coupons, to focus on getting the last remaining “unprepared” households ready for the final June 12 shutdown.

In a letter to Anna Gomez, deputy administrator for the National Telecommunications and Information Association, Republicans Joe Barton, ranking member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Cliff Stearns, ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, said that by focusing its attention on these households—which it tags at 5 percent of all over-the-air households in the U.S.—the agency could even save taxpayers’ money in the long run. On Tuesday, President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill, which set aside $650 million for the DTV converter box coupon, which ran out of money at the end of last year. Last night, approximately 421 stations planned to shut off analog signals on what had, until recently, been the analog shutoff deadline; an additional 200 had already shut down signals, meaning that more than one third of the approximately 1,800 U.S. full-power broadcast stations have ceased analog transmissions.

“Focusing the $40 per coupon program on this five percent of television households may even have the happy result of achieving budget savings on behalf of the taxpayers, because it will not require spending all of the $650 million that is earmarked for these efforts in the stimulus bill that was signed yesterday,” the Congressmen wrote.

Barton and Stearns asked the NTIA to make a list of stations transitioning between now and June 12 available to consumers through its outreach program, including its Web sites and telephone help lines so that consumers in specific areas will know when their stations are shutting down analog. It also urged the association to place coupon requests from over-the-air only households to the head of the waiting line, as opposed to requests from those households that currently receive cable or satellite service.

The pols accused the Obama administration, which supported delaying the full power analog shutoff to June, of “stalling” the DTV transition and sowing consumer confusion.

“Millions of viewers now expect that the switch will simply move from one date to another,” the Congressmen said. “Instead, it will occur almost willy nilly over a period of months. Unfortunately the Obama delay that Congress passed and the President signed seems certain to confuse and perplex viewers now that a third of the country’s 1,800 full-power television stations have turned off their analog signals and switched to digital only.”

Barton and Stearns based their 5 percent figure of unprepared households on figures from Nielsen. They also claim that the coupon program is not out of money, despite NTIA’s claims. They assert that if Congress had passed legislation they proposed in January that would have authorized an additional $250 million for the converter box program, it would have cleared the waiting list for coupons (which had grown to 4.2 million by this week).

“Nothing can completely undo the chaos that this delay will inflict,” the Congressmen said. “However, if you are able to prioritize the coupon program, it may be possible to mitigate the harm of the delay and save the taxpayers a bundle.”