Officials concerned that people are unprepared

Don’t flip the switch just yet — that’s what the incoming Obama administration urged Congress on Thursday regarding the long-planned Feb. 17 transition to all-digital broadcasting.

Key lawmakers and biz interests were all over the map in their response to the call for the delay. The flurry of debate about the timing came on the heels of news that the government program set up to help consumers offset the cost of buying digital converter boxes has already blown through its $1.3 billion budget, with more than 1 million requests for the $40 coupons still waiting to be filled.

Some lawmakers involved in telecom policy said they would push for more emergency funding of the coupon program rather than delaying the transition, which would require congressional action. The Feb. 17 transition date was set by Congress in 2005.

“We don’t need to bail out the DTV transition program because it isn’t failing, and reintroducing uncertainty to the switch will make things worse instead of better,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who added that he was working on legislation to beef up funding for the coupon program. “Ditching the deadline and slathering on more millions of taxpayer dollars … is just panic.”

But CBS and News Corp. were quick to rush out statements of support for Obama’s call for a delay. The National Assn. of Broadcasters leaned toward the no-delay side. Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin has expressed concern about the planned transition but had not come out in favor of a delay as of Thursday.

The Obama administration has found “major difficulties” in the preparations of the transition, John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama-Biden transition team, wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Sens. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Barton. “These weaknesses mean major problems for consumers. … The funds provided to support the conversion are woefully inadequate.”

Nielsen Media Research estimates that 7.8 million homes, or 6.8% of the nation’s 118 million television households, are “completely unprepared” for the transition.

The people in danger of losing access to TV after the transition are those without cable or satellite service and without digital-ready sets. A high proportion of those people are lower-income families and senior citizens who can least afford the $50-$80 cost of the digital converter box needed to make an analog TV set work once the digital switch is thrown.

Podesta’s letter said that Obama’s planned economic stimulus package includes “resources to address these issues” but did not elaborate. Regardless, those funds would not be available before the Feb. 17 switch date.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a key player in telecom policy for years, indicated his support for the delay, though he noted that doing so involved “logistical challenges.” Barton’s statement said he was working with Markey on legislation for the coupon program.

Hutchinson, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee that would be involved in any such legislation, also came out against a delay.

“Shifting the date this close to the transition, without a sound plan to share information about the new transition date, will likely result in significant confusion,” she said. “We need to focus on a solution to the coupon shortage.”

In a statement, News Corp. backed the incoming administration. CBS echoed News Corp.’s sentiment.

“Our first concern is what’s best for our viewers, and we believe that the Obama-Biden transition team shares our concern,” the News Corp. statement said.

Advocacy group Consumers Union was among the first to lobby for the delay earlier this week, casting it as a consumer-protection issue.

“Millions of consumers could now be forced to spend their own money to navigate this federally mandated transition,” Consumers Union said in a letter to Congress. “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.”

(Cynthia Littleton in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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