Major broadcasters won’t drop analog signals early

Now that shrill debate in Congress over the digital television transition has subsided, the Federal Communications Commission has four more months to ensure that Americans are ready for the switch. And with bipartisan assurances that the delay to June 12 will be the only time the transition is postponed, the commissioners know they have to get it right.

The bill that Obama is expected to sign into law shortly delays the mandatory switchover, but allows broadcasters to shut off their analog transmissions early, provided they meet certain FCC conditions.

At a marathon meeting of the FCC this afternoon, Interim Chairman Michael Copps praised several major broadcasters for pledging to continue to broadcast in analog until June. The four major networks, along with Telemundo and Gannett, have all agreed to delay their transition.

Many local broadcasters that transition early will continue to use analog signals to broadcast informational messages about the switchover and emergency announcements.

The three commissioners heard testimony from a variety of people involved in the transition about how they plan to smooth the many bumps that have arisen on the road to all-digital service.

And there are many. For starters, the government’s coupon program to help subsidize the cost of the converter boxes required to keep analog TV sets running has been anything but a success. The agency administering the coupon program has run out of money. The waiting list for coupons has swelled to 3.7 million.

The economic stimulus package that could pass the Senate tonight (or early tomorrow morning) would allocate $650 million to refund the coupon program, but the commissioners heard today that it could be several weeks or months before that money starts to flow into the National Telecommunications Information Administration.

Then there’s the matter of getting those converter boxes into stores. Michael Petricone, senior vice president government affairs of the Consumer Electronics Association, estimated that there are between 3 million and 6 million converter boxes in stores today. But in anticipation of the original Feb. 17 date, manufacturers stopped production, and have only recently fired up the assembly lines again. That means it will be a month or two before more boxes start rolling into stores, and Petricone admitted that he was uncertain whether retailers might run out of inventory in the meantime.

The commissioners agreed that the challenges ahead are many, and that no matter what steps they take or what date Congress sets, some consumers will still see their TVs go dark in June.

“Never have we asked consumers to jump through so many hoops to pick up a broadcast signal,” Copps said. “We have the most solemn obligation to inform and assist them.”

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