In Depth

TV’s New Date With Destiny

As DTV Delay Looms, Stations Pay Price

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives will vote on whether the transition to digital broadcast television will be delayed, setting off a new scramble by broadcasters to adjust to a changing DTV switch deadline.

After a political back-and-forth that kept station managers off-balance for two weeks, June 12 is the new date for the digital switch. Legislators have said a delay from the original Feb. 17 deadline could cost individual stations up to $1 million in additional utility and lease costs.

Whether or not the delay is enacted this week, the National Association of Broadcasters is ready to deploy new public-service messages telling the public about the delay. TV stations that have been preparing contingency plans since President Barack Obama indicated last month that he wanted a delay are deciding whether to go ahead and switch to digital or wait until June.

The FCC said that of the nation’s 1,800 or so TV stations, 133 have terminated their analog signals already, another 67 will terminate their signals before Feb. 17 and 93 have told the agency they will terminate their signal on Feb. 17. That means no matter what Congress does, about 16% of the nation’s TV stations will have switched by Feb. 17.

The delay, which lets President Obama sidestep any disasters that would have accompanied the earlier switch, spells problems for TV stations already struggling with bare-bones budgets.

House Republicans who oppose the delay suggest it is unnecessary and would unfairly impose costs on TV stations.

On the House floor, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., a former radio station owner, cited letters from Oregon TV stations who are facing “upwards of $1 million in added energy costs at a time when they are having to lay off staff who do news coverage and other things because now they are going to get saddled with this burden, $500,000 to $1 million.”

The National Association of Broadcasters declined to comment on the pending delay.

Advocates of a delay argued that some parts of the country and some demographics are unready for the switch. Congress and the Obama administration were concerned that adequate programs weren’t in place to deal with any last-minute problems.

5.7% Not Ready
Their best evidence: A Nielsen study saying that as of Jan. 18, 5.7% of U.S. households were totally unready to receive digital TV. The study cited differences in readiness from market to market.

About 10% of households in Dallas and Houston are totally unready. Even in better-prepared markets, the percentage of minority households is in some cases double the national 5.7% average. In Phoenix, Nielsen reported 18.25% of Hispanic households aren’t ready. In Los Angeles, more than 11% of Hispanic and African American households aren’t ready.

Consumer and civil rights groups who urged a delay warn that those households could lose far more than entertainment.

“You would be completely disconnecting people who rely on over-the-air, which is the primary emergency broadcast mechanism in the United States,” said Mark Lloyd, VP of strategic initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Advertiser groups also have expressed concern that a premature cutover would leave 17 million households either fully or partly without TV.

“This sudden loss of the ability to receive television transmission would cut off millions of Americans from important media access, including the commercial messages of our members,” said the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Advertising Federation.

Finally, there are questions about how the FCC would view an early switch. The agency holds its first meeting with acting chairman Michael Copps this week; it will be devoted to DTV.

If there was any question about the Obama administration’s view, it was answered last week by a statement issued after the Senate approved the delay legislation.

“Poor planning and inadequate funding of the DTV conversion means that millions of Americans risk being left in the dark on Feb. 17,” the Obama administration said. “We urge the House to move quickly to pass this bill, and we will work with Congress to improve the information and assistance available to Americans as the nation moves to digital television.”