Digital-TV Transition More Likely Than Not to Be Postponed

Senate Committee Drafting Legislation to Enact Delay

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WASHINGTON ( -- Looks like there'll be no need to mark those calendars for the digital-TV transition on Feb. 17. It now seems more likely than not to get postponed, probably to June, broadcast executives said today.

Capitol Hill aides said the Department of Commerce running out of coupons for digital-TV converter boxes, together with a request from President-elect Barack Obama's team for a delay, climaxed already intense concerns that the transition wasn't being adequately run.

Legislation to delay the transition is already being drafted in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Some Republicans could yet oppose a delay, but as one network executive said, "You don't want to stand up in front of a moving train." A second network executive also said a delay is a near certainty.

Republican opposition
As of late last week, Republicans in Congress who had declared opinions on the issue opposed a delay. Some big-name Republicans, however, had yet to state their views, among them Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Olympia Snowe. 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 key Democrats including the chairmen of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee.

A delay in the transition date, besides increasing broadcasters' utility bills -- many would have to run analog and digital transmitters together for four extra months -- could force them to devote additional time for public-service ads about the transition at the expense of running ads. It's not clear, however, that in the face of a slow economy, broadcasters would lose much advertising.

Then again, a delay could also provide some benefits.

Craig Moffett, an analyst for Bernstein Research, in a research note published Jan. 9, said a delay would push back any viewership or advertising disruption, making broadcasters "the biggest winners" from a delay.

Broadcast executives last week said a delay might hurt stations that already have converted to digital in expectation of the Feb. 17 switchover. Over-the-air households without converter boxes would miss the stations for several months.

Momentum built fast
The momentum for delaying the change built fast, following the announcement Jan. 5 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 needed to get over-the-air TV signals and was going to start putting consumers on waiting lists.

The $40 coupons the government provides are good for 90 days, and the NTIA said it wouldn't be able to issue new coupons until old ones expired. That meant 1.35 million requests for coupons couldn't be immediately fulfilled.

There also has been concern that the Federal Communications Commission waited too long to award contracts for phone banks and aid needed for the transition and that the contractors wouldn't be ready.

Consumers Union sent a letter to President George W. Bush, President-elect Obama and congressional leaders this week urging a delay, warning that some consumers' sets were going to go dark.

Then on Jan. 8, John Podesta, co-chair of Mr. Obama's transition team, urged Congress to delay the changeover, citing "major difficulties" in the digital-TV 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," the letter said.

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