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House Defeats Bill to Delay Digital TV Switch

The legislation, which has the backing of President Obama and already passed the Senate, failed to gain two-thirds support in the House under special rules adopted for the vote.

The digital transition, scheduled to take place on Feb. 17, will offer enhanced images and sound over the older, so-called analog signals. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, called to delay the switch by four months to June 12.

Consumers who subscribe to a cable or satellite television service, or who have a television purchased after March 2007 with digital capabilities, are not expected to be impacted by the switch. Households with older televisions who still rely on a rooftop antenna or “rabbit ears” will need to use a digital converter box to receive television signals.

In 2005, Congress required broadcasters to switch from analog to digital signals, to free up valuable portions of the wireless airwave spectrum to be used for commercial services and emergency-response networks.

House Republicans say a delay would burden wireless companies and public safety agencies waiting for the spectrum that will be vacated by the switchover, and create added costs for television stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals for four more months, the Associated Press reported.

“In my opinion, we could do nothing worse than to delay this transition date,” said GOP Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, according to the AP. “The bill is a solution looking for a problem that exists mostly in the mind of the Obama administration.”

The Nielsen Co. estimates more than 6.5 million U.S. households that rely on analog television sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals could lose their television service all-together if the switch occurs in February as planned.

In an effort to help ease the cost of purchasing digital converter boxes the Commerce Department administered a program to distribute, upon request, $40 coupons toward the purchasing of the boxes, which cost between $50 and $80. The coupon program, however, ran out of money earlier this month.

About 3 million consumers are on a waiting list for coupons if more become available after already-issued coupons reach their 90-day expiration date, making money available for additional coupons, the Washington Post reported.

“Delaying the upcoming DTV switch is the right thing to do,” Rockefeller said after the Senate approved the delay Monday. “I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition at this time.”

Democrats may try to push through a new version of the bill next week, but this time in a way that would possibly permit amendments and require a simple majority to pass.

If the House approves any changes, the bill would have to return to the Senate for final passage, Reuters reported.

Some stations will continue to broadcast weather and emergency information for 30 days over the analog airwaves, but technicians already have done dry runs preparing for that moment when the country’s 1,700 TV stations will shut off their analog transmitters.

Industry groups, broadcasters and advertisers have launched a broad public relations effort to spread word of the switch and explain what individual consumers needed to do to prepare.

The audience gap that could be created because of the switch is a concern for many broadcasters, particularly PBS.

“About 2 million children are watching public television over the air,” PBS chief Paula Kerger told the NewsHour Monday. “There are a lot of people in rural areas for whom public television is extremely important. And those are the people that I am very worried about will lose access to the kinds of programs that we produce.”

Still, the costs and logistics involved in delaying the long-awaited digital switch didn’t make postponement of the move an ideal choice either.

“Whether it occurs on Feb.17 or if it occurs a few months later, there will be a hard date,” Kerger said. “And I think the communication around that needs to be very clear that this is a transition that is happening and that everyone that is affected by it needs to make some decision about how they want to receive television.”

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