Senate Calls for DTV Delay; House to Vote Today

By Ken Kerschbaumer

The turnoff of analog TV signals next month appears headed for a delay to June 12. The Senate approved a compromise bill (S.328) that will give the government four more months to help consumers understand how the DTV transition will impact them and also get additional DTV-converter-box coupons into the marketplace. It is now up to the House to get into the act as it votes on similar legislation.

The compromise bill, drafted by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) calls for funding of additional $40 converter-box coupons to be made available and funded by future FCC spectrum auctions. The initial $1.3 billion worth of coupons paid for by the government were claimed by the end of 2008, but, more important, many of them expired before the consumers bought the converter boxes; the coupons had to be used within 90 days of receipt.

“Once legislation is enacted to reschedule the transition, the changes I worked to secure will help consumers whose coupons have expired to apply for new coupons,” says Hutchison. “Other modifications to early delay proposals will allow prepared TV stations to move forward without the added costs of operating multiple broadcast facilities.”

“The DTV Delay Act will not fix all of the problems associated with the transition,” says Rockefeller. “More work needs to be done to ensure that consumers are aware of the transition and get the help they need. But it gives us all the time to do the transition right.”

Rockefeller says the government can now develop a new plan and implement a new set of ideas to manage the transition and will have time to make sure that, in the switch to digital signals, no American is left behind.

“If we are able to make substantial progress on the administration of the transition, this should be the last delay we have to seek,” he adds.

NAB EVP Dennis Wharton says the broadcasters group supports the legislation, passed unanimously by the full Senate, that moves the DTV deadline to June 12 while providing flexibility to stations in adjusting to the new date.

“Local broadcasters and our network partners are proud of the unprecedented billion-dollar educational effort we have undertaken to ensure that our viewers are prepared for the switch to digital, and we are grateful for policymaker efforts that underscore over-the-air television’s importance in the fabric of American life,” he says. “The DTV legislation now moves to the House. NAB salutes the leadership of Commerce Committee Chairman [Henry] Waxman and his colleagues, and we look forward to swift passage of this bill.”

“This is a big step towards ensuring that consumers can adequately prepare for the DTV transition,” says another of the bill’s backers, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who has long expressed concerns about the high percentage of over-the-air households in her state. “In Minnesota, more than 21% of our households depend exclusively on over-the-air broadcast TV.” she says. “Unless we get this right, millions could be without television on Feb. 18, the day after the transition.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on its own bill on Tuesday Jan. 27. Waxman (D-CA) proposed the bill, which is similar in tone to that passed by the Senate.