Senators Reach DTV Delay Compromise

The saga of the potential delay to the Feb. 17 DTV transition continued Friday morning as key senators reached a deal on the legislation.

Incoming Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said late Thursday a new measure was replacing the bill he filed a week ago. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the panel’s top Republican, had resisted the earlier measure and said Jan. 8 that it was “too early” to delay the transition.

Friday morning, she indicated she supported the revised measure.

“I had serious concerns about shifting the digital television transition without a sound plan to inform consumers or address the converter box coupon shortage,” she said in a statement. “I am pleased that Chairman Rockefeller worked with me to address many of the concerns with the early proposals. These changes will help consumers whose coupons have expired, and allow TV stations that are prepared, and ready, to move forward without the requirement of simulcasting. Senator Rockefeller’s personal commitment to me to not seek another delay provides needed certainty to bring this transition to a conclusion.

The fixes to the converter-box program will allow some of those subsidies to flow again; requests for some 2.5 million coupons remain unfulfilled because the program’s funding has run out.

The compromise would also include protections for public-safety users with plans for spectrum that will be vacated by the transition.

Legislation may also be needed to modify the 30-day Nightlight program already in motion to allow some stations to keep analog signals up with emergency and DTV-related information until March 19.

A Senate aide familiar with the process said it was hoped that the bill would reach the Senate floor for unanimous consent next week.

Things are less further along on the House side, where Rockefeller’s counterpart, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., scheduled a markup for a delay bill on Wednesday but then canceled it. The top Republican on the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, has consistently resisted what he has seen as alarmism on the DTV issue and accused Democrats of showing panic in their recent push for delay. Barton recently cited Commerce Department numbers suggesting that just 200,000 households have taken no action toward obtaining a converter box, a sharp contrast to the 6.5 million Nielsen recently pegged as unprepared, although that figure includes people who have already ordered or obtained coupons for converter boxes.

Barton introduced separate legislation Friday, to authorize (but not appropriate) $250 million for the converter-box coupon program, suggesting it could immediately enable the NTIA to resume sending coupons to viewers.

"If our work had not been interrupted by the Obama transition team, legislation could have been through the House and the Senate by now," Barton said in a statement.

Whatever the number of unprepared viewers, plenty of them are in Hutchison’s and Barton’s home state. Texas’ two largest television markets, Dallas-Fort-Worth and Houston, are both among the five worst-prepared markets in the nation, according to the Nielsen numbers. Texas’ Rio Grande Valley also reports especially large over-the-air reliance; Hutchison introduced legislation in 2007 to delay the transition for border-area stations.

As previously reported in TV Technology, there are plenty of practical and technical difficulties in any potential delay.