Congress Still Trying for DTV Transition Delay

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Democrats in the US Congress are still trying to delay the transition to digital television, according to the chairman of a powerful committee in the US House of Representatives.

US Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, stated Thursday that Democrats in the Congress may try to pass legislation delaying the digital television transition until June 12. Currently, all television broadcasters in the US are scheduled to switch to digital-only Feb. 17. But Waxman and other legislators are concerned that too many Americans are not prepared for the transition.

The US Senate voted unanimously January 27 to delay the transition. On January 29, however, Republicans in the US House blocked the bill. Democrats have a majority in both houses of Congress but tried to pass the DTV delay in an expedited procedure, which requires a two thirds majority.

A spokesperson for Waxman said Democrats in the House and Senate will try to pass the delay bill again next week using a procedure that requires only a simple majority. Waxman noted that a federal government program that offered coupons to reduce the cost of converter boxes by $40 is out of money, leaving a large waiting list.

While delaying the DTV transition may cost broadcasters, Waxman stated that a delay would help people who are at risk of losing their major source of information:

“There are millions of people waiting to get their coupons and their converter boxes. There is an enormous backlog and it is not the public’s fault. Delaying the transition will impose some costs to broadcasters, but I believe we need to weigh the public and the private interests. In my judgment, it is more important that we delay the transition to prevent millions of Americans from losing access to emergency broadcasts, news and information.”

Mitchell Szczepanczyk, a Chicago-based media reform activist, said that as many as 50 million Americans may see their televisions go black if the DTV transition is not delayed. Szczepanczyk cited data from Nielsen, a company which tracks media consumers. Nielsen found recently that 6.5 million American households – 230,000 households in Chicago – are not prepared for the transition.

“How many people are there per household? Who will be affected? We don’t know,” he said.

Szczepanczyk said that while many people “justifiably regard television as a wasteland,” it remains an important way to get information. Szczepanczyk said he was concerned that the DTV transition might generate an “information gap.”

“A lot of people still rely on television,” Szczepanczyk said. “Especially in poor communities, where newspapers are not an option and radio has been cut to nothing and not everyone has Internet.

“For a lot of people, TV is the significant, maybe even the exclusive way to find out about things.”

Anyone who has an older, analog set and does not have a digital converter box will no longer be able to receive free television once the DTV transition happens. Anyone with a digital-ready television or who subscribes to cable or satellite services is ready for the switch and does not need to buy a converter box or take any other steps.

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