Digital TV transition encounters wave of trouble
With the clock ticking toward the Feb. 17 deadline for TV broadcasters to shut off their analog signals and go entirely digital, analysts say more than 6.5 million households are not ready. Now Congress appears poised to postpone the transition to June – but a delay could bring its own problems.
To avoid blacking out TV sets in unprepared homes next month, the Obama administration is seeking the delay to give the government more time to fix a subsidy program that has run out of money for coupons that help consumers pay for digital converter boxes for older TVs.
Senate Democrats last week reached a deal with Republicans on a bill to push the digital transition to June 12 – setting the stage for a vote early this week. The House is likely to move quickly after the Senate acts.
But one big problem with extending the transition, critics warn, is that many TV viewers could be confused. A delay could also be expensive for broadcasters. And it could burden public safety agencies and wireless companies waiting for the airwaves that will be freed by the shutdown of analog signals.
Government agencies, consumer groups, television broadcasters and other parts of the industry have invested more than $1 billion during the past several years to educate consumers about the shift to digital broadcasting. The message all along has been that analog signals would be shut off Feb. 17.
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This aggressive campaign has pushed consumer awareness rates well above 90 percent, according to Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.
“We have been working for almost three years to educate consumers that this is the day,” Pollock said. “How do we re-create that? It will be hard to start over.”
It will also be costly – forcing the government and industry to pour more resources into additional public service announcements and outreach efforts.
For many television stations, a delay would also mean the additional expense of continuing to broadcast both an analog and a digital signal for another four months.
According to Randy Smith, president of WSET, the ABC affiliate in Lynchburg, Va., the electricity bill alone to operate some transmitters can run $20,000 a month.
A delay also would upend carefully mapped transition plans that many stations have had in place for months, if not longer.
WSET, for instance, is broadcasting an analog signal on Channel 13 and a digital signal on Channel 34 and plans to move its digital signal to Channel 13 after the switchover. Yet it cannot begin construction on a new digital station until it shuts down the analog one. So for more than a year, WSET has had tower crews and other workers scheduled to begin Feb. 18.
To address such scenarios, the Senate bill would let TV stations proceed with the analog shutdown early – an option that WSET is considering.
But across the country, in Bend, Ore., Chris Gallu doesn’t have that choice. Gallu is general manager of four TV stations in the central Oregon town, including KTVZ, the NBC affiliate, and KFXO, the Fox affiliate.
To complete the move to digital, his stations are waiting for a larger, more powerful transmitter to arrive from a broadcaster in El Paso, Texas. But that transmitter won’t become available until the El Paso station no longer needs it – and that won’t happen until the Texas station switches channel assignments at the government deadline.