Will Washington Put DTV Transition on Hold?

The call to delay the transition to digital TV broadcast is getting louder. With President-elect Barack Obama, the Consumers Union, four TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox), plus two former FCC chairmen weighing in on the matter, the long-touted Feb. 17 DTV deadline is looking more and more like a passing fancy. Americans might yet gain more time to buy that converter box or new TV, or subscribe to cable or satellite services.

According to Nielsen, about 7.8 million households — or 6.8 percent of total U.S. TV homes — are completely unprepared for the deadline.

“As many of our viewers would lose their ability to access broadcast information and entertainment, ABC supports the call to delay the DTV transition,” ABC said in a statement. Slightly more cautious, CBS said it was “open to the suggestion.”

What sounded the alarm by Obama and others was the news on Jan. 5 that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal bureau that administers the $40 coupons for converter boxes, ran out of funding. The NTIA has been forced to put an estimated 1 million consumers on waiting lists for coupons, who now must either pay full price for the boxes, buy a new TV, or subscribe to cable or satellite.

Many fear that the government is ill-prepared to handle those that turn on their sets Feb. 17 and see snow.

“If the transition to digital TV goes badly, it will inconvenience millions. There is no reason to rush toward a fiasco when we can just as well take the time to make sure the change happens smooth,” said former FCC chairmen Bill Kennard and Michael Powell in their New York Times editorial.

The National Association of Broadcasters, stopping short of advocating a delay, is pushing for Congress to address the issue by approving more funding.

Several Republican lawmakers have said it’s way too early to push the panic button,  including Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

“Shifting the date this close to the transition, without a sound plan to share information about the new transition date, will likely result in significant confusion,” Hutchison said.

Broadcasters, who thought they were seeing the end in sight of having to support and pay for broadcasting an analog and digital signals, are also wary of delay. “We feel we’ve done a good job of informing the public; we have them focused on Feb. 17. By changing the date, we’re concerned we would confuse people,” said Paul Karpowicz, president of Meredith Broadcasting Group.

In the near term, expect Congress to hold hearings on the matter. And use a pencil to mark the DTV transition on your calendar.