WASHINGTON DC (AdAge.com) -- A key U.S. legislator is considering pushing back the Feb. 17 switch to all-digital broadcast TV signals. "With the date looming, moving the date back certainly warrants further discussion and may be a wise choice," said Daniel Reilly, an aide to Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey, who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee's telecom committee.
The comment came hours after Consumers Union asked Congress and the White House to delay the digital TV transition, citing problems with the government coupon program for DTV converter boxes and other worries.
The switch to all-digital signals is approaching fast as the incoming Obama administration rushes to put together a leadership team for the Federal Communications Commission and other key posts that would be responsible for the transition. A stumble on Feb. 17 could leave over-the-air viewers without TV, potentially cutting them off from important local information and driving them to alternative media. A loss of viewers may also zap broadcasters who are struggling to maintain ratings.
In a letter sent today, Consumers Union suggested the government's inability to issue new coupons, on top of concerns about the number of call centers and the amount of assistance to viewers, should prompt a re-examination of the switchover date. The missives went to Rep. Markey, President George W. Bush, President-elect Barack Obama and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.
"We believe Congress should consider delaying the transition until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals, particularly by fixing the flaws in the federal coupon program created to offset the cost of this transition," said the letter from Joel Kelsey and Christopher Murray, senior policy analysts for Consumers Union.
"With Feb. 17 only 40 days away, we are concerned that millions of at-risk consumers, including rural, low-income and elderly citizens across the country, could be left with blank television screens. Consumers have fewer resources than ever to buy the necessary equipment to regain access to essential news, information and emergency broadcasts. Against this backdrop, Congress should consider delaying the digital transition so the significant flaws in the converter box coupon program can be adequately addressed and sufficient local assistance put in place to help millions of consumers who are being forced to navigate this transition."
The request from the consumer group comes two days after the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced it had run out of money to issue the $40 coupons that are intended to defray the cost of digital TV converters; instead, it had to create a waiting list for issuing new coupons until old coupons expire. The coupons expire after 90 days.
In their letter, Mr. Kelsey and Mr. Murray noted the digital switchover resulted in the government making $19 billion from selling the analog spectrum that was opened up by the switch.
"Millions of consumers could now be forced to spend their own money to navigate this federally mandated transition," the letter said. "This economic climate is not the right time to ask consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government."