Lawmakers Disagree on DTV Transition Crisis Level

The House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet sought an update on the DTV transition this week—specifically, the rollout of the coupon program for digital-to-analog converter boxes.

And while some congressmen have made a mantra of the impending crisis they say could happen at the end of full-power analog broadcasts in February 2009, others figure the marketplace and the industries involved will get the job done, at least for most viewers.

John Kneuer, boss of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and overseer of the coupon program, deflected lawmakers’ attempts to find holes in the program—viewers left behind because they don’t try to redeem the coupon till the end of its 90-day life, for example, or because they live far away from retail electronics outlets.

“We’re making great strides,” he said, updating Congress on the certification of coupon eligible boxes and other details.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) felt confident that NAB and National Cable and Telecommunications Association efforts would adequately educate the public. The low estimate by the Consumer Electronics Associations of the number of analog-dependent viewers added to his confidence, he said.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), said he wasn’t concerned about the transition “going to Heck in a handbasket,” because of his trust in the marketplace. And if the boxes aren’t available at the store he first goes to (a scenario raised by lawmakers) then he’d just drive his SUV over to another store, he said.

“I honestly believe the market is going to take care of a lot of this,” added Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)

Kneuer and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin were cool to the idea of a DTV Task Force along the lines of the Y2K Task Force last century (suggested by lawmakers including House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and others.) Telecom Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) suggested a “DTV quarterback” (he cited Tom Brady as an example), handing off duties to the various running backs.

That would be better that a “czar,” which one lawmaker noted ends up getting killed by the Russians. Another representative suggested a guru, or a benevolent dictator. Kneuer and Martin both said they interact enough on the issue, as needed, without formalization through a task force. But in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein called for a multi-agency task force.