Should the government postpone the digital television transition currently scheduled for Feb. 17? The Senate says yes, the House says no. Let the legislative hijinks ensue.
Since the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Jan. 5 that funding for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program was temporarily exhausted and then President-elect Barack Obama said the digital switchover should be delayed, lawmakers have been scrambling to find a solution.
Democrats in both the Senate and the House want to push the deadline for television stations to switch from analog to digital broadcasting to June 12, in addition tossing in $650 million more for the digital converter box program. Republicans in the Senate at first objected but then struck upon a compromise with Democrats: Move the deadline to June 12 but allow stations that want to go ahead and make the conversion any time prior to June 12. The Senate approved the measure Jan. 27.
That appeared to grease the wheels for passage of the DTV delay legislature in the House, but House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was unable to win over Republicans and canceled two hearings on the delay. Fine, said the House leadership, and they put the Senate version, with some technical corrections, up for vote Jan. 28. It failed, although the majority of members voting said yes to the deal. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the rules on that particular vote took a two-thirds majority.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, 20 days and counting before the Feb. 17 deadline.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who crafted the Senate compromise, said Jan. 28 he was "deeply disappointed" by the House vote.
"While the Senate paved the way with a bipartisan bill to repair this unfortunate situation, our Republican counterparts in the House chose to stand in the way of a workable solution," Rockefeller said in a statement. "Instead of delaying the transition to ensure that the most vulnerable among us have the ability to prepare for the transition, they have made certain that far too many consumers across the country will wake up on Feb. 18 and find that their television sets have gone dark."
Waxman expressed similar feelings.
"I am very disappointed the House Republicans blocked the DTV extension today in the House," Waxman said in a statement. "Their vote has wasted valuable time and will cause needless confusion for consumers. A clear majority in Congress supports postponing the transition and providing assistance to the millions of households that are unprepared."
If the House ultimately fails to act on a digital TV extension, consumers who solely depend on over-the-air signals for television reception must buy a digital television set or a digital converter box for their analog sets. Consumers who use cable or satellite service are not affected by the change.
Rockefeller said he has no intentions to let consumers' televisions go dark. So, for his next legislative act, he said Jan. 29 the Senate may take up and pass the failed House version and send that back over to the House for approval next week.
House Republicans, though, continue to insist that the digital transition can be achieved by Feb. 17 and that the coupon program is not out of funds.
"The DTV converter coupon program is not out of money; only half of the $1.5 billion in the coupon program has been spent," Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Jan. 27, urging her to call off the vote. "For the past three weeks, we have known exactly what we need to do in order to get rid of the backlog in requests for DTV converter coupons."
Barton insisted, "This delay is not necessary; nor is the $650 million in the stimulus needed." Barton introduced Jan. 23 a bill to provide additional coupons for the converter box program and to expedite delivery of the coupons.
According to a Nielsen survey conducted a year ago, 14.3 million U.S. households rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts. The NTIA said that, based on consumer self-reporting, 12.6 million households that rely on over-the-air television have requested coupons. As of Jan. 4, though, more than 24 million households have requested approximately 46 million coupons, with about 18 million coupons actually having been redeemed.
To date, 52.5 percent of coupons requested have been redeemed and more than 13 million coupons have expired. The program allows for two $40 coupons per household to help offset the cost of digital converter boxes for nondigital television sets.