Obama Urges Delay in Digital TV Shift

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The co-chair of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team urged the US Congress to delay the conversion from analog television to digital broadcasting because of “major difficulties” they discovered in the preparation for the transition.

John Podesta wrote a letter addressed to the chairmen of the committees at the US House of Representatives and the US Senate on January 8 asking for a delay in the so-called DTV transition, scheduled right now for February 17, 2009.

Podesta wrote that “as of today, over 1 million coupon requests sit on a wait list, unable to be fulfilled by the Department of Commerce, because the program designed to provide consumers with a coupon to defray the cost of the digital-to-analog converter necessary for analog TVs to continue to work has run out of funds.”

Podesta stated that the government’s programs to assist consumers through the conversion are “inadequately funded.” Implementing the DTV transition on schedule would hurt poor people and senior citizens, he added.

“These weaknesses mean major problems for consumers. Because Congress mandated the conversion date and other components of the switch, congressional action is the first step toward addressing the problems awaiting Americans.

“There is insufficient support for the problems consumers (particularly low income, rural and elderly Americans) will experience as a result of the analog signal cutoff. A part of the Economic Recovery Package contains resources to address these issues,” stated Podesta in his letter to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia), and its ranking member, US Sen.Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), and to US Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-California), chairman of the committee in the US House, and its ranking member, US Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas).

Podesta wrote that “only 28 days after the Inauguration, Americans will awake to find their analog televisions no longer receive the over-the-air signals they have always relied upon for both entertainment and emergency notification, and blame the outgoing Presidential administration and congress for it.

“This is the result of a decision made by Congress in 2005 and implemented by the outgoing administration.

“By early February, projections suggest that number could climb to over 5 million un-honored requests, increasing by hundreds of thousands every day,” he said.

Podesta said that “a waiver of the Anti-Deficiency Act is necessary to keep coupons going to consumers on a short-term basis under the existing authorization.”

He added that “even with the aforementioned waiver, however, the funds provided to support the conversion are woefully inadequate.

“Coupon demand appears headed to a level that will exceed that authorized by Congress.”

Podesta stated that the problems he cited above led the Obama Transition Team to the conclusion that the Feb. 17 cutoff date for analog signals should be “reconsidered and extended.

“With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively-mandated analog cutoff date,” said Podesta.

In an article that appeared in our Fall 2008 edition entitled “Train Wreck Expected for TV Transition,” RJ wrote about major problems two commissioners of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), researchers, legislators and public officials predicted for the upcoming digital transition.

Following publication of that article, RJ publisher Ethan Michaeli participated in a conference call on communications issues between media reform advocates and representatives of the Obama Transition Team. During that conference call, Michaeli said an anecdotal survey of RJ’s readers found that few were prepared for the DTV transition. If hundreds of thousands of people in Chicago were unprepared for the DTV transition, Michaeli said that tens of millions of people around the country – low-income families, seniors and others – would also be unprepared. Michaeli told an Obama Transition Team representative that some advocates were referring to the DTV transition as “The Katrina of TV.”

Podesta’s letter to Congress was written approximately 10 days after that conference call.

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