The Democrats sure know how to make an entrance.
Hardly had the new Democratic Congress been installed last week when its leadership began falling in line behind a proposal that the Feb. 17, 2009, hard date for the DTV transition should be softened up and pushed back.
That request came from the incoming Obama administration, which technically hasn't begun dictating policy yet. While the Obama transition team didn't say how long the delay would be, four months, or sometime after Memorial Day weekend, is thought to be the current target.
Some prominent Republicans—and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which is responsible for selling all those DTV sets—were trying to stem the tide last week, with Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) saying Democrats were panicking. But at presstime, broadcasters were said to be in favor of the idea.
That comes even though it will mean scrapping a date they have spent millions—and will now continue to spend millions—to promote. They'll also be spending yet more money to keep two signals running at a time when profits are plummeting. And all for a transition that has so far not put a dime in their pockets.
Maybe it was a portent that David Gilliland, NASCAR driver of the Ford that the FCC sponsored to promote the Feb. 17 DTV transition, crashed his first race out.
From Set in Stone to Writ in Sand
The date's devolvement from set in stone to writ in sand took many by surprise, but according to more than one veteran industry lobbyist, the networks likely saw it coming and may have told the transition team that they would not oppose it.
The question is, how did a hard date heavily promoted by the government and industry for 18 months suddenly become so movable?
The short answer is that the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) provided a catalyst with its announcement last week that it would have to start putting DTV-to-analog converter box coupon requests on a waiting list. It had telegraphed the possibility for some time, but the reality drew immediate rebukes from Democrats who had long criticized the Bush administration's handling of the transition—whether it was the fact that the government coupons subsidizing the converter boxes expired after 90 days and could not be re-applied for, or that nursing homes did not originally qualify for them.
There were also complaints about lack of money for DTV education programs, or coordination of the DTV education effort. Democrats like Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts were already worried that not enough had been done to help or inform TV viewers. Add to that growing concerns about DTV reception issues and a possible shortage of converter boxes, and the stage was set for Democrats to leverage the criticism.
Enter the Obama transition team, who are already faced with an economic mess of epic proportions. The last thing they wanted to deal with was inheriting a potentially messy DTV switch within weeks of taking over.
A letter to key Congress members from Consumers Union, asking them to move the date, stirred little response, but it was followed the next day by a like-minded letter from John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama transition team, sent to the same people. And what a difference a letterhead makes: Podesta's missive triggered a veritable avalanche of support from Hill Democrats and, to greater and lesser degrees, the Big Four networks.
Several broadcasters who asked not to be identified seemed convinced the date was moving. “It will sail through Congress,” said one. “I think it is happening,” said another.
They suggested that while it would create extra expense—not to mention viewer confusion—on balance it would mean only a few more months of doing what they have been doing: broadcasting two signals and telling everyone to get ready to lose one of them.
“It's imminently doable,” said one.
Sweeps Won't Be Swept Back
But if it is done, don't expect Nielsen to move the sweep period from March back to February. It has a deadline of its own, having already printed the diaries for March and now having not enough time to place new diaries in homes.
There are upsides to the plan. Having the Obama Web-centric, marketing-savvy operation focused on the transition should lead to more cogent efforts. It will allow more time to unclog the coupon pipeline, and give the FCC more time to help broadcasters fill in gaps in DTV coverage. And IBM, which has subcontracted the coupon subsidy program, would be a winner since the NTIA would have to renegotiate its contract to continue the program.
But the millions already spent on what would be misguided promotion is significant, a hard nut to swallow given the current economy. Brandon Burgess, chairman and CEO of Ion Media, the nation's largest station group owner with 60 outlets, is also tallying the expense of keeping the analog light on.
“Frankly, I am looking forward to turning analog transmitters off,” he said, explaining that it will save millions in utility bills.
Some argue that broadcasters' rapid acquiescence in the matter is a political no-brainer. It is one of the first requests from the coming administration, said one lobbyist: “Who is going to say no?”
But by asking to have the date moved, the Obama team takes on more ownership of the transition. It would arguably have been easier politically to leave the transition alone, and then let the previous administration absorb the fallout of failure.
Now, said one source in the current administration, if a couple of million people will still lose signals when the new date rolls around, it will be the Obama team's responsibility to give the OK. Or move the date again.
One bright spot came in Podesta's suggestion that there would be money in the economic stimulus plan to help DTV at-risk populations. Given the added expense of extending analog in a tanking economy, maybe some of that money should go to TV stations as well.
Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton's phone number has changed. He can now be reached at (571) 830-6440. His e-mail address remains firstname.lastname@example.org.