Washington—The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would keep some analog TV stations on the air for 30 days beyond Feb. 17, 2009 in order to provide public safety announcements and information about the digital TV transition.
The Senate bill (S. 3663), sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va), can't advanced to the White House without House approval. Similar legislation sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) is pending in the House.
"I firmly believe that our nation is not ready to make this transition without substantially more involvement from every level of government, the entire communications industry, and willing community organizations across America," Rockefeller said in a statement Thursday.
A Bush administration official, in a switch, now says she supports the Capps-Rockefeller legislation.
"It would be a helpful step, so I would encourage that passage," Meredith Attwell Baker, Assistant Commerce Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said just hours before the Rockefeller bill passed.
In early October, Baker told reporters she opposed extending analog broadcasting past Feb. 17.
"We feel that certainty is best at this point. Delay confuses consumers," she said then.
Asked about her new position, Baker said: "My concern was a short period there would turn into a long period. We want to make sure the transition happens and it happens on Feb. 17 and that date doesn't get extended to Aug. 17."
Baker spoke here at a forum hosted by the Media Institute, a First Amendment advocacy group supported by major media and telecommunications firms.
Last month, the National Association of Broadcasters unanimously adopted a resolution to support both analog extension bills.
"Coupled with our billion dollar campaign to educate Americans on the digital TV transition, this timely legislation will give broadcasters one final resource to ensure that no TV viewer is left behind due to insufficient information," NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton said in a statement Thursday. "We applaud Sen. Rockefeller and his colleagues, and encourage House lawmakers to adopt similar legislation offered by Rep. Capps."
In his statement, Rockefeller questioned the effectiveness of NAB's public information campaign.
"While there are claims that hundreds of millions of private sector dollars have been spent making Americans aware of the DTV transition, it seems that most Americans have no idea what it really is even if they have heard of it," the lawmaker said.
On Feb. 17, all full-power analog TV stations have to shut down, perhaps cutting off TV service to hundreds of thousands of homes that can't receive digital TV signals. Keeping analog stations on air for a month would assist those that could not or would not adequately prepare.
Baker's NTIA is in charging of running a $1.5 billion program to provide each household with two $40 coupons to use for the retail purchase of digital-to-analog converter boxes.
Wilmington, N.C., was the first market to go all digital on Sept. 8, but the analog signals remained on the air until Sept. 30, broadcasting the kind of information that would be mandated by the Capps-Rockefeller bills.
Under Rockefeller's bill, cable operators would not need to carry the analog signals with during the 30-day extension. FCC rules already required cable systems to carry TV stations either in digital or in downconverted analog format.
Last Tuesday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin endorsed the analog extension bills, which some are calling DTV nightlight legislation.
"Trying to make sure there's a temporary time frame when broadcasters can continue to provide information about what's going on with the DTV transition would be helpful," Martin said. "I think that was very helpful in the Wilmington transition and I think that would be helpful going forward."