February 2009 House Cutoff Measure Favors Broadcasters

In a vote so close that quite literally a "handful" of votes (five) could have spelled the difference between passage and defeat, the House voted this week to set Feb. 17, 2009, as the cut-off date for analog transmissions. The date is an expected compromise between the House's earlier committee-proposed date of late December 2008 and April 2009, as had originally been proposed in the Senate.

A final Senate vote still is required (possibly this week) before the measure goes to the president for his signature.

In several ways the compromise gives a deferential nod to local broadcasters and the NAB, since it eliminates an earlier provision to require broadcasters to ante up more than $5 billion in ad time to educate consumers on the DTV transition. Approximately $5 million is now set aside for consumer education.

Perhaps of greater interest to the industry in the short-term was another item that was axed from the original House bill that would have allowed cable operators to down-convert HD broadcast signals to SD for five years after the transition date.

The cut-off date is a small part of a large and controversial budget reconciliation bill that passed by a House vote of 216-206. The House measure still allows up to $990 million for a set-top converter box program for households not employing digital sets, cable or satellite, according to published reports. Each applicable U.S. household would be permitted to receive up to two $40 converter box coupons. (If needed, an additional $510 million could be allocated for converter units, as well.)

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said in a statement the DTV legislation "brings needed certainty to allow consumers, broadcasters, cable and satellite operators, manufacturers, retailers, and government to prepare for the end of the transition." However, the original cutoff date was Dec. 31, 2006, and there is nothing to prevent Congress from changing the date once again, at its sole discretion.