Playing a DTV Waiting Game

Jan 11, 2009  •  Post A Comment

With the Feb. 17 switch to all-digital television signals heading for a delay—most likely until June—TV stations are contending with a whole new world of uncertainties and potential costs.
When President-elect Barack Obama last week called for a delay, media companies including News Corp., NBC Universal, CBS Corp. and the Walt Disney Co. voiced their support.
Check out all of TVWeek’s DTV coverage here.
But it’s up to station general managers to figure out the details of staffing DTV-switch telephone help lines, potentially airing both analog and digital signals and devoting additional air time to public service announcements.
On the other side of the ledger, Mr. Obama’s surprise request to Congress to push back the digital transition may move any business disruptions associated with the DTV transition out of the first quarter, delaying dips in viewership or advertising until later, when the recession may have lightened.
Media executives, who declined to speak on the record, said a June switch currently appears to be the most likely scenario.
While Democrats on Capitol Hill and the Federal Communications Commission took the request as an opportunity to bash the Bush administration’s preparations for Feb. 17 as inadequate, Republicans characterized Mr. Obama’s move as panicky.
Some TV station executives said moving the deadline just extends the pain for them and introduces more uncertainty into their businesses. Switching out old antennae and analog transmitters and rescheduling contractors to do the work are among the headaches. Utility bills to power transmitters also could mount into the tens of thousands of dollars per station.
Boosting Budget Woes
That’s frustrating for some, who now have to rejigger budgets without a firm new DTV switch date to aim for.
“All of us broadcasters have worked extremely hard to educate the public for the transition from analog to digital,” said Joe Young, VP and general manager at KDAF-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth, a Tribune-owned NBC Universal affiliate. “The delay is very disappointing because some people will never be ready.”
KDAF had plans to help viewers who lost their signals, and those plans now will have to change, said Mr. Young, who made clear he wasn’t speaking on behalf of Tribune Co.
Pushing the DTV switch to June as some have suggested, or even later, may give the incoming administration time to assess just how well prepared the country is. The Nielsen Co. last month estimated that 7.8 million TV homes are totally unprepared. Many fear, however, that pushing the deadline just defers the pain and that many viewers will procrastinate no matter what the deadline.
The change in administrations provided an inflection point that allowed a recalculation of whether the country was ready.
Capitol Hill sources said last week that the combination of the Department of Commerce running out of coupons for digital TV converter boxes, together with a request from Mr. Obama for a delay, climaxed already intense concerns that other elements of the transition weren’t being adequately run.
Some Republicans in Congress could yet oppose a delay, but as one network executive said, some fights are better avoided.
“You don’t want to stand up in front of a moving train,” said the executive.
Some big-name Republicans, however, had yet to state a view, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Tenn., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Ms. Snowe serves on the Senate Commerce Committee and in the past has joined with Democrats concerned about media issues.
Democrats, meanwhile, all urged a delay, with the calls coming from the chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee.
The momentum for delaying the change built fast, following Jan. 5’s announcement by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration that it had run out of money for coupons to help defray the cost of converter boxes. The NTIA said it was going to start putting consumers on waiting lists.
The $40 coupons the government provides are good for 90 days. NTIA said it wouldn’t be able to issue new coupons until old ones expire. By the end of last week, there were 1.35 million coupon requests that could not be immediately fulfilled.
In a letter to President George W. Bush and President-elect Obama and congressional leaders, Consumers Union urged a delay, warning that some consumers’ sets were going to go dark. The letter also asked why consumers in a bad economy should have to pay for converter boxes while the government makes $18 billion from the sale of spectrum space that the DTV switchover frees up.
Then on Jan. 8, John Podesta, co-chair of the president-elect’s transition team, citing “major difficulties” in the digital TV changeover, urged Congress to delay the transition.
“With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change in the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date,” he said in the letter.
How any action on the delay will play out in Congress was uncertain last week. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, began preparing legislation to delay the switch. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, didn’t immediately weigh in.
With reporting by Andrew Krukowski


  1. Mitch McConnell is from Kentucky and not Tennessee.

  2. Just another example of the ‘dumbing down’ of America. Make us all wait to accomodate the unwashed, uninformed, semi-literate few who just don’t get it.

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