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Congress Votes to Delay Switch to Digital TV Until June

February 4, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Congress passed a bill Wednesday delaying the transition from analog to digital television until June to give Americans more time to prepare for the switch. A reporter gives an update.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the congressionally mandated Feb. 17 deadline for the switch from analog to digital TV approached, the nation’s broadcasters rushed to convert to the new technology.

In fact, more than 85 percent of TV households wouldn’t notice a change, since they’ve already received a digital signal through their cable, satellite, or other subscription TV service, or their TV was purchased after March 2007, when all sets had built-in digital receivers.

Consumers with older analog-only TVs can get a digital signal by hooking up their sets to a digital converter box. But that message has been slow to get out. And a government program to help, by sending out coupons for the purchase of converter boxes, ran out of money, leaving fears that millions of viewers could have their sets go dark.

Monday, the Senate responded by approving a four-month delay to give consumers more time to prepare. The House debated the issue today. Representative Maxine Waters of California argued for the delay.

REP. MAXINE WATERS, D-Calif.: Can you imagine Feb. 18, when millions of households will have their TVs go dark and not understand why? Yes, it would be great if everyone had received their coupons, if everybody understood the transition to digital, but they don’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Rep. Joe Barton, Republican of Texas, said the transition had gone on long enough and delay comes with costs.

REP. JOE BARTON, R-Texas: This bill doesn’t approve any money. The money for this bill is in the stimulus package, which probably won’t clear the Senate for another couple of weeks, so we’re delaying a hard day transition today with no additional money, nor any way to send out additional coupons. How silly is that?

Rural and poor areas vulnerable

JEFFREY BROWN: In the end, the House joined the Senate, pushing the transition back now to June, but leaving many new questions still to be answered.

And with me now is Amy Schatz, who covers telecommunications policy and regulation for the Wall Street Journal.

So, Amy, the pressure to delay, where did it come from? Who is most at risk of losing their signal?

AMY SCHATZ, Wall Street Journal: You know, there's really only about 6.5 million Americans that they feel still aren't ready for the transition. Nielsen recently did a study...

JEFFREY BROWN: Only? I guess that depends on where you sit, right?

AMY SCHATZ: Only, about 6.5 -- that's a lot of people. And I think that really the issue here was that they couldn't get coupons anymore, and if you're a procrastinator and you're not ready for DTV yet, this is about the time that you'd be trying to get your coupon, you'd be going to get a converter box, and you get ready, and there aren't coupons available.

Well, there are, but they're going out very slowly. And so I think the idea was that, at the time when a lot of people are now going to try to get ready for this, all of a sudden, the coupons are gone. And so they wanted to give just a little bit more time for folks to get ready.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it still the case the most vulnerable would be rural areas, some minority groups, the poor?

AMY SCHATZ: That's exactly who it is. And that's -- according to the Nielsen figures, which are basically the best one we have right now, those groups are still not as ready as other demographic groups.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, on the other hand, by delaying there are some new major implications, right, major costs for broadcasters?

AMY SCHATZ: Right, this is a huge problem for broadcasters, who really weren't ready to spend a lot more money this year to broadcast analog and digital signals for a while, because, you know, financial pressures on broadcasters are fairly severe right now, too. And because of this, this means that a lot of stations are going to have to transmit and have more electrical costs and other costs that would be involved in that.

Some stations may switch early

JEFFREY BROWN: But explain that. Why, because they now have to continue doing both, because they're ready with digital, but now they have to keep the analog?

AMY SCHATZ: Right. So most stations are already transmitting in digital and they're continuing to transmit in analog. Those are two different towers. Those are two different streams. And you have to pay for both of those.

They were really hoping to not have to broadcast in analog anymore, because it would save them some money. And so, actually, a lot of broadcasters may just switch anyway just to save some extra cash.

JEFFREY BROWN: They may switch anyway, meaning?

AMY SCHATZ: Early. They may switch early, by Feb. 17 anyway.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do they have to apply to do that?

AMY SCHATZ: Yes, they do. And almost about a fourth of them already have. So there are about 1,800 full-power broadcast stations across the country, and about a fourth of them have said that either they're switching early or they've already switched or they could switch by Feb. 17.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, switching early means -- you mean they would be dropping their analog all together because they don't want to pay for it any more?


JEFFREY BROWN: What implications does that have?

AMY SCHATZ: For consumers, that means, if you're not ready for digital TV yet, you may not be getting some stations, so if you do have a converter box, where you're...

JEFFREY BROWN: But do we know -- excuse me, before you get to that -- do we know where that might happen at this point or what consumers might be affected?

AMY SCHATZ: Yes, the FCC is going to have a list of those stations, but really the best way for consumers to figure this out is just by watching their local stations, because the local stations are going to have to tell people that they're going to switch to digital only, because they really need to let folks know.

And, also, the other thing is they don't really want to lose a lot of viewers, so really the best way in your community is to just figure out just by watching the local stations. And if they say that they're going to transition early, you should make sure that you've got a converter box and ready to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, because you're saying, otherwise, people are going to be watching their local stations, suddenly they won't see their local station, in some cases?

AMY SCHATZ: There will just be nothing but snow. It'll be it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, because we have our -- we're on PBS, and this is a particular concern here, we asked for a statement from Paula Kerger, the president of PBS, and she wrote this statement. "It will hurt broadcasters, according to our own estimates. Delaying the switch until June will cost public television $22 million. This is because many of our member stations will be forced to extend leases on broadcasting towers," what you're talking about, right?

Are there particular issues for PBS in this switchover and in reaching audiences?

AMY SCHATZ: PBS is sort of an interesting case here, because a lot of PBS stations really feel like they need to serve their entire communities and that they're going to serve all of those homes, whereas a lot of broadcast stations don't necessarily have to do that.

And so, after the digital transition, there are going to be households who it doesn't matter if they get a converter box, they buy a new antenna, they do all sorts of different things. They may just simply not get some of the broadcast stations anymore, whereas with PBS, it seems like they feel a little bit more like they really do have to try to serve everybody, and so it's going to cost them a little bit more.

Air-wave use important issue

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I know at this point there are people either scratching their heads or maybe they're throwing something at the television because they're wondering, why are we doing this anyway? Back up here a few years. I mean, the point of all this is quality, efficiency? Explain it.

AMY SCHATZ: They've been trying to do this for almost a decade. And for Congress a few years ago, in 2005, when they actually finally set this date, this was a really big thing.

And the main thing that was driving this was that they feel like that the analog TV signals are really, really good airwaves, because they're very strong, and they felt that analog signals that you're currently watching TV on just aren't that efficient, because they take so much space. So an analog signal takes this much space. A digital signal takes this much space.

And so if you have, you know, this much space going out, you can use all this for something else. And so what they wanted to do was sort of take some of those airwaves and give them to police and firemen so that they could have new radios to improve their communications. And the other thing Congress wanted to do was to auction some of these airwaves off, because they wanted to spend money on other things. And so that's exactly what they did last year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they raised a lot of money.

AMY SCHATZ: They raised $20 billion last year. And the other little problem with postponing this transition to June is that the wireless companies that bought those airwaves, that really want to use those airwaves to do new advanced wireless, you know, video and Internet services to your gadgets, they can't do them until everybody moves off the airwaves.

And so this delay is going to be a problem for them, too. But basically the reason they did this was because they felt that they could just use these airwaves for better things.

Some aren't getting digital signal

JEFFREY BROWN: And I want to ask you another sort of consumer news you can use. I know this, because when we did a report a few weeks ago, we had an online forum. We got a lot of questions about this. And a lot of people said that their digital signal is not as strong and some people said they're not even getting their digital signal.

What's the explanation? And how widespread is that?

AMY SCHATZ: The problem here is that digital signals aren't as strong as analog signals. So an analog signal can take -- it will go much, much further than a digital signal.

And so what people are finding is that they need to either get stronger antennas on top of their roofs to actually get these new digital signals or, in some cases, they may live so far outside of town or so far away from the tower where the local station is broadcasting from, they may not get that signal at all. And there's not much they can do about that, other than sign up for cable or satellite.

And so it's been a real issue for a lot of folks, because unlike your traditional signal where, if the signals aren't very strong, it gets kind of sort of fuzzy. You don't get that with digital. If the signal is not very strong, you just basically get a blank screen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we'll watch over the next few months now until June, I guess. Amy Schatz of the Wall Street Journal, thanks very much.

AMY SCHATZ: Thank you.