Switchover has become focus of partisan spat

The Beltway battle over President Obama’s a $819 billion stimulus package has been civil compared with the congressional fight over the switch to digital TV.

Senate Democrats and House Republicans chose this seemingly less-significant battleground for their first partisan skirmish of the Obama era last week, adding to an issue that seems plenty complicated to the average TV consumer.

When Nielsen released a January report showing that about 6.5 million U.S. homes, many of them Hispanic and African-American, would lose their TV signal Feb. 17 once stations turn off their analog transmitters, Congress fast-tracked a bill to delay the digital switchover until June 12. That way, more money could be pumped into the program that provides consumers inexpensive converter boxes.

Things started out amicably enough; on Jan. 26, the Senate voted unanimously to delay the digital transition from Feb. 17 to June 12. But since the bill — supported by Obama — had been fast-tracked, it need a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress in order to pass.

House GOP members argued that delaying the transition would further confuse consumers and cost money for TV stations, which would incur the significant expense of operating both analog and digital transmitters for another four months.

The delay would also affect the government’s $16 billion sale of some of the surrendered analog signal spectrum to AT&T and Verizon Communications, which won a bid to acquire it last year.

“The (delay) is a solution looking for a problem that exists mostly in the mind of the Obama administration,” says Joe Barton (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Commerce Committee, who — for now, has successfully led the push against the delay. It’s a victory that likely won’t last long. Once Democrats reintroduce the bill on the regular House calendar, a simple majority vote will pass it.

Still, it’s a warning shot that even with Obama’s call for bipartisanship, the days of party warfare are not over.

Opinion among the TV business mixed.

PBS officials, for example, say it will cost its local stations $22 million to keep pumping out analog signals for another four months. And with the Senate bill allowing stations to go all-digital sooner than June 12 provided they make their analog spectrum available for emergency broadcasting, there are a number of stations that say they won’t wait.Perhaps more patient are the struggling broadcast networks, which pushed back February sweeps to March for fear of the audience disruption brought about by the switchover. They favor a June transfer, when their skeds are largely filled with reruns and inexpensive reality shows.

Advertisers also are onboard, with both the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies and the American Advertising Federation endorsing a delay. “You cannot have 6.5 million households in this country without a TV signal,” says Shari Anne Brill, senior VP and director of strategic audience analysis for ad-buying firm Carat.

Ultimately, the switchover will be worthwhile for everybody concerned, she contends, with viewers gaining a clearer digital picture, and broadcasters and advertisers able to reach them with a wave of new technology.

Down the road, the “addressability” of next-generation digital set-top boxes, for example, will allow dog-food makers to target their spots only to homes that have dogs — a boon to broadcasters and their advertising constituents.

But more time is needed to get the public ready for the switchover, says Brill, who believes public education must be better addressed, too.

The FCC has pumped out a ubiquitous supply of PSAs in recent months that have largely succeeded in making the public aware that a switch is happening. But there is still a lot of confusion as to the mere technical aspects of just hooking up the converter boxes, she contends.

To date, the FCC has answered that challenge with a how-to video online.

“Do you think an old lady who has a TV with rabbit ears has an Internet connection?” Brill asks.

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