Policy

DTV Switch Date Up In Air

1/31/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Don’t reset those DTV countdown clocks yet.

The digital transition remained set for Feb. 17 as of press time, at less than three weeks and counting.

But a President Obama-backed congressional effort to change the date was in doubt last week. And broadcasters looking for assurances about any date closure were left wanting.

U.S. CapitolIf viewers weren’t confused before about the transition date, they may be after Congress is done passing, defeating and reviving efforts to rebrand it for June 12.

One Washington, D.C., TV station that had been telling viewers they needed to act by Feb. 17 conceded on its newscast early last week that the date might move by four months, then reported the next day, somewhat sheepishly, that it looked like it wasn’t moving after all. Then came the news late in the week that the odds were getting better again.

“The uncertainty is unfortunate,” said former FCC chairman Dick Wiley, who was instrumental in setting the digital standard. “Whatever the date is, we need to focus on it.”

One veteran broadcast lobbyist said he still expected the date to move, but time is obviously becoming a factor.

After the House failed to approve a Senate-passed version of the date change early last week, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) sounded resigned to having Feb. 17 hold, despite his best efforts to see it moved. “I think he was positioning himself in case this thing goes down,” said a lobbyist who asked not to be identified.

But by late last week, the tide appeared to have turned once again. Rockefeller succeeded in getting a second bill approved by unanimous consent in the Senate; the bill will be sent back to the House this week for another try.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), is expected to reintroduce Rockefeller’s bill under regular rules. It would then require only a simple majority for passage — not the two-thirds majority needed the first time around — and could be on the president’s desk by midweek. If the same number of House members vote to approve the bill as did the first time, the new DTV transition date will be June 12.

And if House Democrats don’t want to get rolled by Republicans on one of Waxman’s and the administration’s first big communications issues, that is what will happen. If so, Rockefeller pledged that June 12 would be the real hard date, with no more moving.

“Poor planning and inadequate funding of the DTV conversion mean that millions of Americans risk being left in the dark on Feb. 17,” said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage. “This bipartisan legislation, which again passed unanimously in the Senate, appropriately acknowledges the needs of both the American consumer and the public safety community. We urge the House to move quickly to pass this bill, and we will work with Congress to improve the information and assistance available to Americans as the nation moves to digital television.”

The House Democrats’ failure to secure passage of the Senate bill the first time appeared to have come as a big surprise to those with much at stake in the process, including broadcasters, ad agencies, advertisers, wireless companies and even some first responders.

But Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the former chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee who helped set the hard date in the first place, marshaled his forces to block expedited passage.

The move thwarted the Obama administration’s efforts to quickly shift the date and took many in Washington by surprise.

Barton maintained that while industry members were supporting the change publicly, many were privately wishing the date would hold. This reluctance, Barton said, was due to not wanting to be “the skunk at the new president’s garden party.”

The first bill’s defeat reversed a drumbeat of momentum for changing the date that began three weeks earlier, when the Obama transition team asked Democratic congressional leaders to engineer the shift. But House Republicans last week grabbed the drumsticks and started their own rhythm.

The day before the first vote, Republican leadership issued an advisory to its members urging them to vote against the date change. Among the several reasons listed for the advice: the date shift would do nothing to unclog the DTV coupon pipeline, would confuse people who’d been given this date two years ago, would cost broadcasters millions in additional expenditures to handle the logistics and additional education, and, perhaps most tellingly, “would throw an additional $650 million in so-called stimulus funds at the mess that a delay will create.”

Republicans were hotly contesting some of the Obama economic stimulus package’s $800 billion-plus expenditures. The DTV coupon funding in that package was in particular an irritant, and may have helped coalesce the House Republicans behind Barton’s push to defeat the bill. He had called that $650 million a “pot of money in search of a problem.”

In the floor debate that followed, Republicans pulled out all the stops, invoking Sept. 11, Osama bin Laden and the economic crisis as Republican after Republican got up to challenge the bill. Former broadcaster Greg Walden (R-Ore.) also talked of letters from home-state broadcasters who said it would cost between $500,000 and $1 million to continue in analog, at a time when they were having to lay off workers.

Republicans and Democrats were also worlds apart on how many TV households would be at risk of losing TV reception. Democrats brandished Nielsen’s estimate of 6.5 million homes, while Republicans countered that the real number was only a few hundred thousand.

If the DTV date does not move, Congress needs to immediately address the pressing concern of fixing the National Telecommunications & Information Administration’s (NTIA) DTV converter box program.

The waiting list for coupons has topped 3.2 million requests and was growing at last count. Even if money is freed up, many people who want the boxes won’t be able to get them by Feb. 17, at least not with the government subsidy.

November

Next TV

Affinia Manhattan, New York, NY