February 17…Or Not?

UPDATE 1/8/09 4:03 PM: As hinted below, President-elect Barack Obama is indeed urging a delay in the DTV transition date.

Quoting an Associated Press article we found on the TVNewsday trade news website:

In a letter to key lawmakers, transition team co-chair John Podesta warned Thursday that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air broadcasts won’t be ready.

The letter to Congress reportedly focuses on two reasons for delay: the reported problems with the government’s converter box coupon program (detailed below), and a lack of government help for those needing assistance with the transition.

Our original item is below…

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The buzz in the world of broadcast TV today is over a proposed, potential move of the digital TV transition date.

Just about everyone knows – even those who watch no broadcast TV – that “TV will change” on February 17, 2009. The date has been pounded into Americans’ heads. We’ve talked to dozens of people who don’t really know all the details of what’s going on, but know it’ll happen on that date.

Will it?

This Broadcasting and Cable article puts it in a nutshell.

The folks at Consumers Union are pushing a delay of that date, and are getting reception from key members of Congress on the idea. Quoting:

In a letter to Rep. (Ed) Markey, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committe, and others, the CU requested that Congress consider a delay “until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals, particularly by fixing the flaws in the federal coupon program created to offset the cost of this transition.”

As such, B&C quotes Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, as saying the February 17 date “may have to move”. It looks like the parties involved are looking at about a four month delay, says the article, which would push the “new” date to somewhere in June…perhaps the 1st, over Memorial Day weekend.

None of this is reality, as of yet…though it seems that the FCC transition team for the incoming Obama adminstration may be receptive to this idea. It seems plausible, as the B&C article suggests, that they don’t want a DTV mess dumped upon them a month after Barack Obama moves into the White House.

One of the big problems is hinted at, in the quoted material above.

The federal government program to give consumers up to two $40 coupons to defray the cost of converters has now run out of money it can spend, and people who sign up now are being put on a waiting list.

The problem is not necessarily one of no money. The program has a set budget, and various rules prevent the agency running the DTV Coupon program from spending money it expects to get back in the future, when unused coupons expire.

But the calendar both on our computer desktop, and on the wall, tells us it’s January 8th, and the current transition date is February 17th. Quoting the earlier B&C article:

It would be tough to make the move at this late date. The broadcasting and cable industries and the government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and donated airtime on hammering home that Feb. 17 date, putting it on Web sites, billboards, and even a race car. Some broadcasters have already made the switch early (Wilmington, N.C.), or are about to (Hawaii on Jan. 15), and some of the spectrum has already been auctioned for advanced services.

And here in Northeast Ohio, two stations have already consigned analog to the scrap heap – Mansfield’s WMFD/68 is now only WMFD-DT (RF 12/68.1), and Alliance-licensed WNEO/45 is now only on digital 45.

And the other problem? This IS going to have to happen, at some point.

The analog stations will have to go away, be it on February 17, June 1 or whenever. The spectrum freed up by those stations – particularly in the ranges of channels being abandoned, such as 52-69 – has already been auctioned off. The commercial and public safety interests getting the new spectrum are waiting. You can’t unring that bell.

Even if coupon program hadn’t moved to a waiting list, there’s no guarantee that consumers who waited until now to apply for the $40 coupons would get them by February 17th. (And for that matter, if the date moved to June 1, there would STILL be those who put it off.)

There are myriad offshoots of this news from Northeast Ohio…among them, stations like WKYC/3 are rushing to complete tower work for a new broadcast facility – on a digital channel they won’t be able to use until a nearby analog channel (WDLI/17) goes off the air.

WKYC, of course, has applied for a temporary permit to keep running WKYC-DT on channel 2 through the construction…if it lasts past February 17th, which is almost looking likely right now. With no transition on that date, they can’t turn on WKYC-DT (RF 17) until WDLI analog is gone.

All of this comes on the same week when FCC chairman Kevin Martin is visiting Ohio, talking up the DTV transition…which, at least at this moment, unless we’ve missed it, still on 2/17.

In this story on his local visit by WJW/8’s “MyFoxCleveland.com”, he doesn’t seem to offer any new or solid information…but lots of, well, sympathy. To be fair, this is really only bubbling up to the surface in the past couple of days, news-wise.

Keep watching…we know we will be watching, certainly!

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