Ready or Not: DTV Bill Accommodates

American households unready for the final transition to digital television just got a reprieve. Lawmakers passed the DTV Delay Act yesterday after two weeks of political maneuvering. The bill provides a four-month window for television stations to end analog transmissions, easing the impact of the previous hard shut-down date of Feb. 17. It now places the final, final hard date at June 12.

“This will be a one time delay,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) on the floor of the House, where the bill was passed 264-158. It comes just as Nielsen reports that as many as 5.8 million U.S. TV households “would not be able to receive any television programming at all if the transition occurred” as of Feb. 1.

The bill, S-352, delays the transition deadline, allows for voluntary shutdown before June 12, and amends the converter-box subsidy program. Lawmakers launched the program to help pay for the digital-to-analog converters necessary to keep old TVs from becoming toxic waste on Feb. 17. They also realized that suddenly rendering 70 million TVs obsolete was not politically astute.

The subsidy consisted of $40 coupons good against a government-certified converter box. The program ran out of money in early January. More than 3.2 million requests have now been wait-listed, while nearly 14.4 million coupons worth around $576 million have expired.

That money was as good as gone under previous rules. The Delay Act, replaces expired coupons, and extends the program by four months to July 31, 2009.

Republicans in the House originally rejected the bill after Democrats there tried to fast-track it, which requires a two-thirds majority. They kyboshed it Jan. 28 with 258 yeas and 168 nays. The Senate then passed the bill a second time the following day, making it possible for their House colleagues to pass it with a simple majority.

Republicans objected to a delay, saying it would confuse people. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), an architect of the Feb. 17 deadline and the subsidy program, pushed a bill to cut loose the money tied up in expired coupons to buy more. Boucher said, what-ever.

“The provision of more money now without moving the transition date would not avoid viewer disruption. It takes one week to process 1.6 million coupon requests, and so in the 13 days before the transition, the backlog of 3.7 million requests could not be processed even if more money for the program is provided,” he said.

Reaction was by the numbers. Consumer Electronics Association chief Gary Shapiro pulled his hair and rent his garments.

“This date change will inject uncertainty into the market and may result in a shortage of converter boxes, because manufacturers and retailers planned box inventory based on a Feb. 17 transition date,” he wrote in a statement.

The National Association of Broadcasters said it would commence making public service announcements about the extension.

FCC Chairman Michael Copps, who’s holding the reins until President Obama officially appoints Julius Genachowski, said words to the effect of, “whew.”

“It has long been clear to me--and it’s even clearer since I became acting FCC chairman two weeks ago--that the country is not prepared to undertake a nationwide transition in 12 days without unacceptably high consumer dislocation,” he said in a statement.

Barton said, what-ever… “The entire state of Hawaii completed its switch to digital on Jan. 15, 2009, and the state did not sink into the ocean. The change went so smoothly, so much so that the FCC shut down its call center after two weeks for lack of customers.”