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House votes to delay digital TV transition to June 12

February 4, 2009 |  3:03 pm
Digital television transition

Congress this afternoon granted a four-month reprieve to the millions of consumers who are at risk of losing access to TV signals during the switch from over-the-air television to digital broadcasting.

In a 264-158 vote, the House of Representatives approved a bill to push the transition to June 12 from Feb. 17. President Obama has promised to sign the legislation, which passed the Senate last week. The law will require TV stations to keep broadcasting their analog signals until June 12. Consumer advocates say that as many as 10 million viewers currently get their programming solely from over-the-air broadcasts and are unprepared for the digital transition.

"Consumers are confused about where to buy their converter box, about which box to buy, how to hook up their box, what to do if they lose a channel they once got and whether they need a new antenna," said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union. "Changing the date allows them more time to grapple with those questions."

But the delay also could make the confusing transition even more perplexing for some viewers.

TV stations are allowed to seek federal approval to turn off their analog signals before the new deadline. So instead of nearly all broadcasters making the switch on Feb. 17, stations now may ...

... make the switch at different times over the next four months.

That could create another hiccup: Some converter boxes don't have the ability to "pass through" analog signals. As a result, in areas where both digital and analog signals are transmitted, viewers with the wrong converter box may have to unplug the device to watch one channel broadcast in analog, then plug it back in to watch another in digital.

While the vast majority of converter boxes manufactured in recent months have the analog pass-through feature, consumers should check before buying. The Commerce Department has a list of such boxes available online (models with a red asterisk beside them allow analog pass-through).

Although the National Assn. of Broadcasters advocated the postponement, some stations have argued that a delay would impose "moderate to significant costs" because they'd have to maintain an analog signal for four extra months, said Stan Statham, president of the California Broadcasters Assn.

"We’ve had a hard date on the books since September of 2005. Every broadcaster in America is ready to go," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), who led the opposition to an extension.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) complained that the delay would cost broadcasters in Oregon $500,000 to $1 million in electricity costs to continue running analog transmitters along with the existing digital transmitters, and would increase confusion among viewers. He noted that advertisements are still airing touting the Feb. 17 date. "They’re still being told this is what they should do," he said. "This is why people don’t trust the government."

Although they did not need to notify the FCC if they planned to switch on Feb. 17, 276 stations have, indicating that they may want to make the switch on that date regardless of the congressional delay. But acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps said this week that some of those stations may decide to continue broadcasting in analog after the delay is enacted.

The original law that set the Feb. 17 deadline also allowed stations to make the switch early. Some already have -- 143 of the nation’s approximately 1,800 stations have made the transition, and 60 more plan to do it before Feb. 17, according to the FCC.

But supporters said the delay was necessary, particularly to provide more money for the government's subsidy program for consumers who purchase converter boxes. The Commerce Department, which administers a $1.5-billion program to send coupons worth $40 toward the purchase of a converter, ran out of money Jan. 4 and started a waiting list. There are requests for about 3.2 million coupons currently on the list, according to Consumers Union.

"Even if money were provided today for the converter box program, there still would be massive dislocation on Feb. 17," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.).

While most TV stations already are broadcasting in digital as well as analog and could make the switch before June 12, competitive pressures in each market could make that difficult. Stations are unlikely to switch unless all their competitors in the market do as well or they'd risk losing viewers to those still broadcasting in analog. In 18 markets, including Los Angeles and Chicago, News Corp. would add to those competitive pressures. The company said the 27 Fox stations it owns and operates in those markets would not switch before June 12.

"The legislation passed by Congress provides more time for Americans to prepare for the DTV transition and will allow more time for the government to fix the coupon program," said NAB President and CEO David Rehr. “America’s broadcasters, which have spent the past decade preparing for this historic transition, are ready to make a successful switch."

-- Jim Puzzanghera and Alex Pham

Photo: FCC outreach advisor Daniel Rumelt explains how to use a digital converter box during the DTV Expo in Wilmington, N.C., in August. Credit: Paul Stephen / For the Times

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