There could be a skirmish on Capitol Hill between New York and Connecticut TV stations.
Using terms like "devastate," "disastrous" and "treacherous," the president of LIN TV's WTNH/WCTX New Haven, Conn., has written key senators and congressmen from Connecticut and elsewhere to oppose a waiver from the DTV transition hard date for New York stations.
Last week, Rep Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) proposed that the city should get a waiver from the proposed House DTV transition bill's December 2008 hard date, saying otherwise "a large part of the New York Metropolitan area will wake up to blank TV screens after the Dec. 31, 2008 conversion to digital TV broadcast." He may offer the waiver as an amendment to the bill, which is expected to be marked up this week.
NY TV stations have received various waivers of technical deadlines, including for powering up DTV signals, following 9/11.
LIN is not opposed to the waiver if its stations get the same deal, though it says that would start a chain reaction with other stations. But WTNH/WCTX GM Jon Hitchcock is concerned about the "substantial number" of people who will resist the change or not have the means to make it. "I am sensitive to New York's issues," Hitchcock told B&C, "but maybe there is a better alternative plan."
The Engel bill would give New York stations two years beyond the cut-off date to continue to provide analog signals. Since New York signals reach "well into Connecticut," Hitchcock says, while that state's viewers "will be forced to convert to digital—either by buying a box, or a new digital television receiver or subscribing to cable or satellite...for tens of thousands of households in southern Connecticut, there will be another choice—simply continue to view over-the-air network affiliates and local news from New York City. The result is certain to be a very substantial loss of viewing for Connecticut broadcasters."
Hitchcock also made sure to include a warning that would hit home with the legislators: "Not only will these households be cut off from news concerning their local governments and elected officials, but candidates running for office who wish to purchase campaign advertising in those areas will have no choice but to buy time on New York City Stations, the most expensive braodcast market in the country."
Actually, the bill as proposed does subsidize $40 of the expected $50-$60 cost of converter boxes, but it will not guarantee that unless viewers actively apply for those subsidies through a multi-step process, and not everybody would likely get the boxes that need them before the money runs out ($830 million, covering about 10.3 million sets).
In proposing the waiver, Engel pointed to 9/11 and its impact on communications there, saying “It seems that Congress has forgotten its pledge to help New York recover from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. If this waiver is denied, hundreds of thousands of people could be without free, over-the air television signals.
"Please register your opposition to this disastrous amendment, an amendment which would make an already difficult and treacherous transition a true nightmare for Connecticut," Hitchcock wrote legislators.
Mike Rice, president of the Connecticut Association of Broadcasters, says the group is not officially behind the letter (though he did help Hitchcock draft it and make a few calls), but he expects his board will fully endorse it at its November board meeting.
Rice thinks the Engel effort may cool if the hard date is 2009. Rice thinks the push by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to move it up to 2007—defeated in the Senate Commerce Commitee last week—helped generate the concern. A hard date of 2009, over three years out, "weakens that argument," says Rice.