Bill to postpone transition blocked on Friday

Democrats in Congress are trying to act on the Obama administration’s call to delay the nation’s transition to digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, but those efforts are running in to opposition from Republicans.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-West Va.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced a bill on Thursday that would delay the switch until June 12, but that bill was blocked on Friday by Republicans, the Associated Press reported.

Rockefeller has vowed to reintroduce the bill this week. A similar measure from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, is expected to come up in the House on Wednesday, the AP reported.

Obama administration officials earlier this month called on Congress to delay the transition, saying that the federal effort to prepare consumers for the switch had been insufficient and underfunded (Daily Variety, Jan. 9). The concerns grew after it was revealed earlier this month that the government program set up to provide $40 voucher coupons to help offset the cost of the digital converter boxes needed for older TV sets had run out of money and still had millions of people on a waiting list.

The major nets have come out in favor of a delay, given the potential for lost viewership. Nielsen Media Research estimates that about 8 million households are unprepared and would lose access to broadcast TV after the switch.

Rockefeller’s bill would delay the switch to give Congress more time to come up with funds for more coupons, outreach efforts and increased staffing of call centers to handle questions from consumers after the switch is thrown.

Republicans, including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Joe Barton, have come out against the delay, saying it would only confuse viewers who have been told for months through on-air PSAs and other educational efforts that the switch is coming on Feb. 17.

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