In Depth

House Approves DTV Delay, Sends Bill to Obama

The House of Representatives, by a 264-to-158 vote, today ended the debate over whether the country is ready for the digital TV transition with a clear “no.”

It sent to President Obama legislation for a “one-time-only delay” that would postpone the digital transition from Feb. 17 until June 12.

For TVWeek's comprehensive coverage of the digital television transition, visit the DTV Switch Navigator page.

President Obama had asked for the legislation and is expected to sign the legislation later this week.

White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said the delay “means that millions of Americans will have the time they need to prepare for the conversion."

"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,” she said.

The House action came amidst warnings today from Democrats about the number of households that could fully or partially lose TV if the transition went forward as scheduled.

“It’s clear to me that the only way to avoid a massive disruption is to delay the transition,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s telecom committee.

He cited Nielsen research suggesting 5.7% of the nation’s households are totally unready for the transition.

“If almost 6% of the nation’s households lose all TV service, I think most people would declare the digital TV transition to be a failure,” he said.

Rep. Boucher also cited concerns about the unavailability of government coupons for DTV converter boxes—there are 3.2 million requests for coupons on a waiting list. He also questioned the readiness of the call center provided by the Federal Communications Commission to offer technical aid to households. He said the call center “is in virtual disarray” with long waiting times and numerous hang-ups.

He said the delay would give the FCC time to put together a transition that is “properly structured.”

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., also warned about what might happen without a delay: “Without this legislation, millions of televisions will go dark.”

Republicans argued the delay wasn’t necessary and would be expensive.

“The [Democratic] majority is trying to fix a problem that I don’t think really exists,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, ranking Republican on the House Energy & Commerce Committee. He suggested people could be waiting until the last minute to hook up their converter boxes, but would have little trouble doing so.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said, “It is time for us to move forward on this and keep our word to the American people.”

She said she's concerned about the costs and the energy that would be used in having stations air both an analog and digital TV signal for four more months.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., called the legislation “an anti-stimulus bill.”

“I bet if we took a poll, 98% or 99% are ready,” he said. “If you are connected to cable, you are ready. If you are connected to satellite, you are ready. If you have a digital TV, you are ready.”

Mr. Goodlatte said there are “plenty of ways” to immediately fix the coupon program, including some means to allow converter-box purchases made now to be reimbursed later.

The decision to delay the DTV transition creates the immediate need to inform consumers of the change. It also raises the question for TV stations of whether to move ahead anyway.

The FCC said today that 276 stations have indicated plans to transition to digital by Feb. 17, although they could reconsider as a result of the delay.

Acting FCC chairman Michael Copps said he is pleased at the delay because it reflects his view that the country could not have moved forward Feb. 17 "without unacceptably high consumer dislocation."

"The additional four months provided by the law affords urgently needed time for a more phased transition, including a consumer-friendly converter-box coupon program, stepped-up consumer
outreach and support—particularly for vulnerable populations—and dealing with coverage, antenna and reception issues that went too long unaddressed," he said.

In a statement, National Association of Broadcasters President-CEO David Rehr praised the congressional action.

"We appreciate members of Congress for their leadership and swift action in ensuring viewers get continued access to free, over-the-air television,” he said, adding that new public service messages promoting the new transition date would quickly be distributed to stations.

In a statement News Corp. said it was pleased with the action.

"Through the actions of Congress and the Obama administration, American consumers will be given additional time to prepare for the digital television transition," the statement said. "We will work diligently toward ensuring that the new transition date of June 12, 2009, is a successful one."

(2:20: Updated with White House statement)