DTV transition worries Congress

On Feb. 18, 2009, when the nation’s analog television system shuts down, many legislators sense political doom.

At a Senate hearing last week, legislators made it clear they have little trust in the government or television broadcasters to pull off a successful transition.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-HI, said the government needs to act “before the digital transition devolves into digital disaster.” There is a “high potential for a train wreck here,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA. Without a better educational effort, the government could have “a disaster on our hands,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-ME.

It’s not the government or broadcasters who are going to feel the heat, but the nation’s elected representatives, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO. “They’re not going to call you,” she told the administration bureaucrat handling the transition. “They’re going to call me. And they’re going to be mad.”

There were repeated warnings that the $5 million being spent by the government to educate the public about the digital transition is not nearly enough.

“Consumers will be confused, frustrated, and angry that this important information and entertainment source in their household is no longer operational, through no fault of their own,” said Nelda Barnett, a board member of the AARP, the senior citizens advocacy group. “Thousands of telephones will ring in communities around the country as well as right here in hundreds of congressional offices. Constituents will call their elected officials to complain and ask: ‘What has happened to my television set?’”

The Bush administration said broadcasters hold much of the responsibility for a successful transition. John Kneuer, head of the federal agency in charge of the transition, told the Senate Commerce Committee last week that his staff will be leaning heavily on broadcasters for the educational effort.

“It’s not only their own responsibility, it’s in their own interest,’’ said Kneuer, who is assistant secretary in the Commerce Department and administrator of the National Telecommunications Information Administration.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said television station owners are highly motivated to get the word out. “Our very business is at stake here,” he said. “Broadcasters will do our dead-level best to educate Americans on this transition.”