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House OKs Delaying Digital TV Switch Until June

BY Admin  February 4, 2009 at 5:35 PM EDT

Television Set

The House voted 264-158 to postpone the shutdown of analog TV signals to June 12.

The switch from analog to digital had been set for Feb. 17, but lawmakers said a delay is necessary to allow millions of Americans — many of them lower-income, disabled and elderly — more time to make the switch.

Despite years of planning, the government’s fund to distribute $40 coupons to help consumers buy converters ran out of money in recent weeks, and 6.5 million households that receive television signals through antennas have not bought newer digital TVs or converters for their old sets, according to a study by the Nielsen Company.

Members of the Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to Congress last month “to express our deep concern” that the public is “nowhere near” ready for the switch.

The House took up the question last week but under a special procedure that required more than a simple majority. That vote failed to win approval. This time the vote required only a simple majority, and the measure passed.

The Senate passed the measure unanimously last week and the bill now heads to President Barack Obama for his signature. Obama’s spokesman has said the president will sign it.

“The president will sign that delay into law so that we might undergo a little bit better planning process to ensure no interruption for people with televisions,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters last week.

Gene Kimmelman, a Vice President at Consumers Union, praised the vote, saying that it enables “the millions of people on a waitlist to get their converter box and coupons. . . and they should rest assured that they will get them and they will be fully prepared when the transition occurs.”

However, the delay adds costs to many broadcasters who must now keep transmitting both their analog and digital signals for four more months.

Public television stations that air PBS programs such as the NewsHour launched an aggressive effort to educate their viewers about the digital transition.

Now, even with the delay, some public television stations will go along as planned and switch their analog transmitters over to digital on the originally scheduled date.

South Carolina ETV, which started the transition years ago, plans to shut down the analog transmitters on Feb. 17 because of the station’s tight budget, said President and CEO David Crouch.

“We’ve been through several budget reductions since November totaling about 21 percent of our budget. And that is huge for us. And part of our savings plan to deal with the budget cut was shutting down those analog transmitters on Feb. 17,” said Crouch. “We really don’t have the options financially to not move forward with it.”

In Colorado, Rocky Mountain PBS is ready to hit the Feb. 17 cutoff, but will probably wait until April when the rest of the state’s broadcasters switch said Pam Osborne, the station’s director of marketing.

But a delay, Osborne said, will cost the station money, including the energy costs of keeping their analog transmitter running, maintaining a phone bank to answer viewer questions and indirect staff time that goes towards planning the switch.

“No public stations are flush with cash right now,” Osborne said. “This is a huge burden for public broadcasting.”

Iowa Public Television will wait until June 12, despite the costs. “We think it’s more important that people are ready to go,” said Jennifer Konfrst at Iowa Public Television. “Since it’s happened we’re going to make the most of it.”

It will cost Iowa Public Television $30,000 a month to run its nine analog transmitters, but Konfrst said they will use the extra time to education their viewers about the transition.

PBS President Paula Kerger said in a statement Wednesday that while she understood the reasons behind the delay, that the move will likely further confuse viewers.

“According to our own estimates, delaying the switch until June will cost public television $22 million,” Kerger added.

Still, Kerger said PBS was “eager to work with the administration and the Congress to help them develop solutions to both of these problems and assure a smooth DTV transition.”