Hard Analog TV Shutdown Date Develops Cracks

WASHINGTON: The DTV deadline may get pushed back, and according to information coming out of the nation’s capital, President-elect Barack Obama's transition team supports the delay. The Associated Press is reporting that Obama deputy John Podesta sent a letter to key lawmakers warning that too many Americans may not be ready for the transition.

The Consumer Union, an everyman’s lobby in Washington, D.C., earlier sent a missive to Capitol Hill imploring lawmakers to delay the DTV transition. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), head of the House Telecom and Internet Subcommittee (for the moment) received the letter from the CU dated Jan. 7:

“On behalf of Consumers Union, non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, we write today to express our concern that the nation may not be ready for the digital television transition on February 17. We believe Congress should consider delaying the transition until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals, particularly by fixing the flaws in the federal coupon program created to offset the cost of this transition.”

Markey, who was often critical of the way House Republicans were orchestrating the transition when they were in control, is said to support a delay, according to Bloomberg and Broadcasting and Cable. (Markey may not be at the helm of a TV-related committee much longer, however. See “Markey Moves.)

A key concern with the Feb. 17 transition date is that the Fed’s DTV converter subsidy program has run out of money. Subsidies were supposed to be issued for another three months, but the agency in charge of the program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, announced this week that further requests for subsidy coupons would have to be placed on a waiting list. The NTIA was allotted $1.34 billion for the program when Congress passed the DTV deadline more than two years ago.

The money’s been spent handing out 46 million $40 coupons, of which 18 million have been redeemed. The coupons expire in 90 days, and the NTIA can’t reissue new coupons for before those 90 days are up unless Congress says so. According to NTIA figures, at least 1.7 million households that rely exclusively on over-the-air television have not applied for coupons. Digital-to-analog converters can be obtained without coupons, but Democrats aren’t keen on making people shell out $60 to $80 to watch their own TVs.

A 30-day “nightlight” extension has already been signed by the president after being passed last month. The bill allows broadcasters to continue transmitting analog signals with an information billboard and emergency information. However, because some stations are flash-cutting from analog to digital on the same channel, not every one will be able to participate. Others will be inhibited by the continued cost of running two transmitters--between $3,500 and $15,000, according to the broadcast lobbies, which have asked the FCC to allow sponsorships on the billboards to defray the expense.

The National Association of Broadcasters and the Association for Maximum Service Television are also asking the FCC to allow volunteering stations to run videos showing people how to hook up digital-to-analog converter boxes. In a joint filing with the commission, the NAB and MSTV suggested most analog operations be maintained at VHF Channels 2-6 to help prevent interference with digital TV signals, most of which will be at higher UHF assignments.

The NAB, for its part, issued a statement today saying that broadcasters were ready for the Feb. 17 deadline, and urged Congress to do whatever was necessary to fix the coupon snafu.