WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to grant a four-month delay in the upcoming shutdown of analog TV broadcasts, though broadcasters still will be allowed to go all-digital earlier if they want.
The House was expected to vote late Tuesday or Wednesday on a bill that would shift the analog TV shutdown to June 12 from Feb. 17. The Senate unanimously approved the idea Monday night, in a victory for the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers who argue that too many Americans wouldn’t be ready to get digital broadcasts by Feb. 17.
The Nielsen Co. estimates that more than 6.5 million U.S. households that rely on analog sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast signals could see their TVs go dark next month if the shutdown is not postponed. People who subscribe to cable or satellite TV, or have a newer TV with a digital tuner, are not affected.
A delay is “our only hope of mitigating the negative impact on millions of consumers,” said House Commerce Committe Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Waxman is shepherding the Senate bill, sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., through the House.
Democrats need the support of at least two-thirds of House members to pass the bill and will run into opposition from at least some key Republicans, including Joe Barton, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Commerce Committee.
Barton argues that a delay would confuse consumers and burden the wireless companies and public safety agencies that are waiting for airwaves that will be freed by the shutdown of analog TV broadcasts. The shift to entirely digital broadcasts, which are more efficient than analog, has been planned since the 1990s.
Some opponents of a delay also worry about the added costs for television stations that have been banking on the Feb. 17 date and wouldn’t want to keep broadcasting both analog and digital signals for another four months. But Rockefeller adjusted his bill to let broadcasters go entirely digital sooner than the June deadline if they choose — a provision that has helped win the backing of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The Obama administration began pushing for a delay this month after the Commerce Department hit a $1.34 billion funding limit for coupons that help consumers pay for digital TV converter boxes. The boxes, which generally cost between $40 and $80 and can be purchased without a coupon, translate digital signals back into analog ones for older TVs.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department administering the program, is now sending out new coupons only as older, unredeemed ones expire and free up more money. The NTIA had nearly 2.6 million coupon requests on a waiting list as of last week.