The digital TV transition dilemma

I shouldn’t be surprised that the transition to digital television has become an absolute disaster. No matter how many public service announcements I’ve been forced to watch over the past year, it apparently wasn’t enough to get the 6.5 million folks who aren’t prepared off their barcaloungers and get ready for the change.

So now, amid a global financial meltdown, the biggest political issue facing our new president and the Congress is preventing millions of television screens from going dark, or fuzzy, of whatever. Brilliant. Here’s some advice: During these dark times, don’t take away the people’s bread and circuses.

The latest twist in this train wreck came today when the U.S. House failed to approve a delay in this transition until June 12. Now, if you read this story carefully, I’m not convinced this was quite the setback that it appears to be. The vote was brought to the House in such a way that it needed two-thirds approval. While it failed, it did get 258-168 voting in favor. A minority of Republicans apparently believe they can score some political points on this, but just how this works in their favor, I’m not exactly clear.

I would think that Democrats would use this issue to pound on the Republicans, like this:

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., author of the bill to postpone the switchover, said a delay is the only way to ensure that millions of Americans don’t see their television screens go dark next month.

“The outgoing Bush administration grossly mismanaged the digital television transition and consumers are confused, households are not prepared, and the coupon program for converter boxes is broken,” Rockefeller said in a statement after the House vote.

I understand that in some fashion, companies that have invested money to make the switch say a delay would cost them money. If that’s true, it seems better to compensate them rather than creating an ugly revolt by people who are forced to miss their favorite shows. It’s a distraction we just don’t need right now.

My gut says that the delay will happen. In fact, the last paragraph of this story might be the most important:

“Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal policy at the Consumers Union, which has been lobbying for a delay, said he hopes House Democrats will bring the bill up again for a regular floor vote, which would only require majority support to pass. Wednesday’s vote took place under a special procedure that required two-thirds support for passage.:

I’m guessing there’s a good chance of that happening, given the strong Democratic majority and the wide margin of people who voted in favor. I don’t think anyone wants to be facing an angry mob of remote-control wielding protesters and trying to explain what went wrong.


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  • Chris, my guess is that the bill would have to go through committee to avoid the 2/3 vote requirement. I believe that bypassing the committee (and the Rules Committee, too) requires the House to suspend its rules, which is why the bill came up on the suspension calendar.

    If opponents really wanted to make trouble, there might be something in the rules that would give them the power to slow-roll the committee’s consideration of the bill. (That would be the Energy and Commerce Committee, I assume.) Not sure they could slow it down by two weeks, though.

  • NaniLani

    Because of an endangered bird that nests on one volcano on one island, all of Hawaii state went digital last month. IT WENT FINE. I can’t understand why people even debate about this. TV is not a utility! You won’t freeze or starve without it. Let’s just finish this switchover and find out afterwards who NEEDS their TV so much but couldn’t LISTEN to a single PSA about this.

  • I admit that I don’t know a lot about this digital TV switch. I heard on NPR yesterday that it’s supposedly designed to provide more “air space” for wireless and emergency communications. I understand the importance of devoting more air space to emergency communications, but I can’t help but think that the cable and wireless industries are just using that as a way to get more airspace for themselves. This digital TV switch strikes me as stupid, unnecessary legislation brought on–and probably written–by special interest lobbyists (e.g. wireless and cable companies), that really offers no benefit to the average American–just a lot of unnecessary confusion and expense.

  • Peter Pethoe

    No matter how many delays, several milllon viewers will still fail to purchase converters.
    The switchover will force them to get off their barcaloungers to obtain converters, cable TV or satellite dishes if they want to watch their favorite shows.
    The lazy ones will just have to watch their VHS tapes, rent DVDs, or Netflix.

    Why punish us millions who bought converters mainly to view the promised additional channels with these incessant delays?
    We want HDTV now, or at least by Febraury 18, 2009!!

    These delays would accomplish NOTHING!