Key senators reach bipartisan compromise on bill to delay DTV transition

(Editor’s note: This story pre-date’s Monday’s vote by the Senate to approve the DTV delay.)

Efforts by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, to push back the DTV transition date until June 12 bore fruit with the announcement Jan. 23 of a bipartisan compromise on the DTV Delay Act, and the subsequent Senate adoption of the bill Monday.

The Commerce Committee Chairman and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, ranking member of the committee, introduced an amended version of a bill originally offered by Rockefeller Jan. 15 to delay the transition until mid-June.

The new version adds language to manage the transition in communities impacted by the transition and includes a provision that “despite this date change, the transition needs of broadcasters and public safety officials will be respected,” according to a statement Rockefeller inserted into the Congressional Record.

The Senate passed the bill Monday, but it still awaits approval in the House.

Citing the size of the waiting list at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration for DTV converter box coupons, which has swelled to 2 million, Rockefeller said the list will grow by millions more over the next few weeks. “Making a difficult situation even worse, we also face the frightful specter of converter box shortages,” he said in a press statement.

While it is unclear what will happen in the House, Rep. Joe Barton, R-TX, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, does not paint so dire of a picture about the coupon program. Appearing on C-SPAN’s “On the Communicators” Jan. 24, Barton said the long lists for coupons result from an accounting provision in the bill authorizing the coupon program, not a shortage of funds.

Barton, who headed the committee when the Feb. 17 deadline was put in place, said he does not want to see a delay.

Drawing on information gathered from DTV converter box coupon redemption, Barton pegged the number of households that have done nothing to prepare for the Feb. 17 deadline number to no more than 800,000. With a change in the accounting requirements, the U.S. Treasury could make funds available, allowing the government to “just target the 800,000 households, and say, ‘Folks, you have a month; get your coupon,’” he said on the show. (Editor’s note: The Nielsen Company released data last week saying the number of unprepared households stood at 6.5 million as of mid-January. See “6.5 million U.S. households unready for DTV switch, says Nielsen.”)

When asked how stakeholders in the transition, such as Verizon, AT&T, broadcasters and the public safety community, feel about the delay, Barton said no one wishes to be seen as an obstructionist.

“Off the record, nobody wants it to be delayed,” he said. “Everybody is ready to go, but on the record, they don’t want to be the skunk at the garden party here in the new Obama era with a new FCC chairman coming in and a new FCC majority.”

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.