In Depth

Obama Seeks DTV Switch Delay

President-elect Barack Obama is urging a delay of the Feb. 17 switch to all-digital television after fears arose that the DTV transition may leave many TV viewers without signals.

In a letter today to senators and congressmen, John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama transition team, said questions about converter-box coupons and other problems preparing for the switch warrant a delay.

Read full TVWeek coverage of the DTV switch.

“The Feb. 17 cutoff date for analog signals should be reconsidered and extended,” Mr. Podesta wrote. “With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date.”

Leading Democrats in both houses of Congress, a Federal Communications Commission member and major media companies reacted positively to the request. But a Republican lawmaker called it “pure panic,” setting up a test of whether President Obama can win over political opponents on the issue. The stakes for TV viewers and the television industry are high: as late as last month, Nielsen Co. estimated that 7.8 million households had done nothing to prepare for the switch.

The switch to all-digital signals will leave viewers who lack digital TVs, cable or satellite relying on analog-converter boxes. Households that don’t get the boxes, or don’t install them properly will lose access to local-station signals, eliminating a key source of news and emergency information. TV networks could lose viewers as they struggle against eroding ratings.

House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said he will look closely at Obama’s request for a delay.

“The Feb. 17 transition to digital television is not going well,” he said. “There is not enough money for the converter box coupon program and millions of Americans could experience serious problems,” he said in a statement. “We also know that many Americans will experience difficulties connecting their converter boxes, that there could soon be a shortage of boxes, and that the federal government is not prepared to answer the many questions confused consumers will have.”

Rep. Waxman said he’s reviewing the president-elect’s letter and will work with his team and congressional colleagues to address the problems created by “this poorly managed program.”

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, was stronger in his support for a delay.

"I’ve long believed that there is too much at stake for consumers and for public safety to simply cross our fingers and hope for the best when it comes to the digital television transition," Sen. Rockefeller said. "Millions of Americans could be left in the dark if this doesn’t go smoothly.”

He also took a shot at the Bush administration’s handling of the DTV switch.

"The Obama administration deserves time to bring order to what has been an appallingly mismanaged process by the Bush administration. I look forward to reviewing the details of the Obama administration proposal with my colleagues, and will support delaying the current date of the DTV transition until we can do it right.”

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, ranking Republican on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, called the delay request “pure panic.”

“How disappointing. We don’t need to bail out the DTV transition program because it isn’t failing, and reintroducing uncertainty to the switch will make things worse instead of better,” said the Texas Republican. “Ditching the deadline and slathering on more millions of taxpayer dollars, however, is just panic,” he said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said it was too early to call for a delay to the digital television changeover.

Mr. Podesta, in the letter he sent to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, suggested that plans to rectify a shortage of the coupons that help analog-TV set owners afforder digital converter boxes don't go far enough.

“The funds provided to support the conversion are woefully inadequate," he wrote. "Coupon demand appears headed to a level that will exceed that authorized by Congress. In addition, the government’s programs to assist consumers through the upheaval of the conversion are inadequately funded.”

President-elect Obama letter said his proposed economic recovery package includes some funding to address DTV issues.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., former chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s telecom committee and still a member of the panel, said President-elect Obama’s request for a delay should be examined promptly.

“President-elect Obama’s call to move back the digital television transition date highlights the vulnerability of millions of Americans to the impending analog signal shutoff. It also underscores the need for prompt Congressional examination of his proposal,” he said.

Mr. Podesta's letter comes three days after the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration reported that it had run out of money to issue $40 coupons for set-top converter boxes that allow analog sets not connected to cable or satellite to continue to see TV after the Feb. 17 transition.

The government gives coupons that are good for 90 days. The Department of Commerce said although some of the coupons expire unused, it couldn’t issue additional coupons until after some actually expire. It said it was creating a waiting list for new requests.

Nielsen reported in December that 6.8% of U.S. households are totally unready for the digital transition and another 10% are partially unready, with some sets that either need to be connected to cable or satellite signals or to converter boxes.

Nielsen also said 11.5% of Hispanic households are completely unready.

Media companies including News Corp., NBC Universal, Disney and CBS all released statements indicating they are willing to cooperate with the Obama proposal.

In a statement, News Corp. said it "supports any efforts to ensure that the transition to digital television is a success. Our first concern is what’s best for our viewers, and we believe that the Obama-Biden transition team shares our concern. We look forward to continuing to work with the administration, Congress and the FCC to achieve a smooth DTV transition,” the company said.

Federal Communications Commission Michael J. Copps also endorsed a delay.

"More time can only help put in place the kind of consumer-focused outreach and assistance that should have been up-and-running months ago," he said.

(Editor: Baumann. 4:30 p.m.: Adds Copps comment.)