Feds weigh date for digital switch

Draft bill seeks '08 cutoff for transmissions

WASHINGTON — Draft text of the anticipated House bill on the digital television transition specifies Dec. 31, 2008, as the cutoff date for all analog transmissions.

It also calls for an outreach campaign — including warning labels on new TV sets — to educate consumers about the coming transition.

However, bill fails to include any subsidy to help consumers afford the federally mandated shift to DTV.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), bill’s author and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is expected to introduce a final version during a DTV hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

But without a subsidy, the bill’s chances of gaining the bipartisan support Barton has repeatedly said he wants is virtually non-existent. Even some fellow Republicans are not likely to support the bill, further diminishing any hope it will even pass out of committee.

Barton had originally pushed for a cut-off date of Dec. 31, 2006, but many broadcasters said they needed more time. In pushing back the date, Barton also eliminated a previously established requirement that 85% of viewers in any given market had to be capable of receiving DTV signals.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters declined to comment on the draft text, but it is widely known that broadcasters strongly support a subsidy for the estimated 20 million households that rely exclusively on over-the-air (analog) signals. Once the transition is complete, analog sets will effectively be useless without a digital-to-analog converter system. NAB plans to launch an advertising blitz this week featuring TV sets with a snowy picture — the only kind analog sets will have post-transition and without a converter.

Lawmakers had discussed a federal subsidy to cover the cost of a converter system. But talks between Barton and Republican colleagues and Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), senior minority members on the committee, broke down last week over the size of the subsidy.

Barton had favored a limit of $500 million to cover only the cost of low-income households; Democrats had wanted all 20 million households covered, which could cost billions by most estimates. Democrats therefore refused to sign off on the bill.

Should the bill manage to become law, analog TV manufacturers will have to place labels both on sets and packing materials warning potential buyers that analog transmissions will cease at the end of 2008 and the sets will not work unless they are connected to converter systems or cable or satellite providers (which can convert digital signals for analog sets).

Bill also calls for the Federal Communications Commission to “engage in a public outreach program to educate consumers” about the cut-off date and their options to continue receiving broadcast signals (basically buy a digital television set or a converter system).

But Democrats continue to insist that a subsidy is essential to the bill’s prospect of passing, otherwise millions of viewers in remote locations will no longer be able to watch TV. “The bill just cannot pass without a subsidy,” said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), the third ranking minority member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“The political backlash from imposing the cost (of converter systems) on consumers will be unsustainable,” he continued. “There are a lot of members from rural areas on the committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, and I think they’ll all feel the same.”