Washington

Congress Changes DTV 'Hard' Date to June 12

Bill also allows households with expired coupons to reapply 2/04/2009 04:10:00 PM Eastern

Related: The DTV Countdown - Complete Coverage of the DTV Transition

After heated debate by legislators Wednesday and a year and a half of broadcasters, cable operators and the government drilling the Feb. 17 'hard' date into the hearts and  minds of viewers, the House voted Wednesday to change the cut-off date for analog TV to June 12.

The vote was 264 to 158, with more Republicans voting for the delay (23) than there were Democrats (10) going against the Obama administration and party leadership to vote against it.

"The passage of this bipartisan legislation means that millions of Americans will have the time they need to prepare for the conversion," White House spokesperson Amy Brundage told B&C. "We will continue to work with Congress to improve the information and assistance available to American consumers in advance of June 12, especially those in the most vulnerable communities." 

The vote was a victory for the new Obama administration, which pushed for the date change and got little push back from a broadcasting industry not looking to be the skunk at the new president's garden party, as one Republican put it.

The vote to approve the bill came after a motion offered by Republicans was defeated that would have required the FCC to force any stations on spectrum to be reclaimed for emergency communications to pull the plug on analog on Feb. 17 as previously scheduled so that spectrum could be immediately turned over for emergency communications. That would also apply to any nearby channels whose continued analog broadcasts could intefere with that first responder spectrum.

Democrats countered that the public safety interest in keeping millions connected to their TV’s trumped that first responder issue, also arguing the FCC had said few first responders were ready to start using the spectrum immediately anyway

Republicans argued that the Obama transition team’s calling for the move of the date was a violation of the then-president elect’s pledge of only one president at a time.

The bill moves the date and allows households with expired coupons to reapply for them.

Republicans complained that the bill had gotten no markup, no hearing, and was essentially being railroaded through unnecessarily. Democrats countered that there had been nine hearings on the DTV transition in general and that it was a finite, one-time delay that was necessary to reduce the number of TV’s that would go dark and viewers, particularly senior, lower-income and rural viewers, who would be affected by the government’s failure to sufficiently plan, coordinate and fund the program.

Democrats also pointed out that the date change had the support of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Verizon, AT&T, and a number of public safety organizations.

"Only by delaying the transition and utilizing the $650 million contained in the economic recovery bill to address these problems can massive viewer disruption be avoided," said House Telecommunications & Inernet Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-VA).

Behind the push for the change was an accounting problem that caused the National Telecommunications & Information Administration earlier this month to start putting requests for DTV-to-analog converter box coupons on a waiting list and slow the distribution of the coupons to a trickle.

That list had topped two million households by press time and had grown by 200,000 households in the past two days, according to top Democrats who had pushed to change the date.

The $40 coupons are a government subsidy to help analog-only viewers pay for a converter box that allows them to still get a TV signal after the change to digital.

House Republicans had argued the date change was unnecessary, and had offered their own bill, then tried to amend the Democrat's bill, to free up money for the coupons and leave the date where it was.

It will now be up to broadcasters to decide when to make the switch between now and June 12, since the bill allows them to move early so long as they clear it with the FCC.

The FCC said Tuesday that over a thousand stations would still be able to turn off their analog signals before June 12 if they choose to.

Some stations have already indicated they are sticking with the Feb. 17 date. The FCC said it had heard from 276 stations to that effect, in addition to 143 stations that had already pulled the plug, and another 60 who said they planned to do so before Feb. 17. The FCC had pointed out that some of those 276 may change their minds once the date changes.

Joe Barton (R-TX), who has led the opposition to the bill in the House, suggested that the bill was unnecessary because, according to acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps, some 61% of TV stations were going to make the transtion before June 12 anyway.

He was referring to a letter Copps sent Barton in response to a query about how many stations could move early. But in that letter, Copps simply identified how many stations (61% o about 1,800), could make the transition early without intefering with other stations, not how many would chose to do so.

But some clearly are going ahead with the move. In fact, a larger number of stations than previously anticipated are likely to terminate their analog operations on the original date of Feb. 17, according to Ardell Hill, senior VP of broadcast operations for Media General. Maintaining analog service for the Media General group costs $150,000 in electricity costs alone.

"That's just raw electric, to keep analog running," says Hill. "In today's environment, that's a lot of money."

So Media General plans to turn off early in several markets, mainly ones where all the stations are already on their final DTV channel assignment.

"We've got six that are a no-brainer," says Hill. "We're on at full-power now, and on our final channel."

One legislator during the debate estimated that across the country, the additional cost could be on the order of $141 million.

It will also be up to the FCC to quickly come up with rules to implement the new law, including whether an FCC requirement that stations must give viewers at least 30 days notice before pulling the plug on analog still applies.

An FCC source says that the commission has already been working on that implementation language just in case.

Glen Dickson contributed reporting to this article

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