House Passes Digital TV Delay

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Mitchell Szczepanczyk thinks the nation got a reprieve Wednesday when the U. S. House of Representatives passed a delay in the conversion to digital television. Szczepanczyk, an organizer with Chicago Media Action, has been advocating for a delay for years, warning that tens of millions of Americans are unprepared for the conversion and are at risk for seeing their TV screens go dark.

“The delay gets more time and hopefully more money for those who need help,” Szczepanczyk said.

The Nielsen Company, which tracks media consumers, found recently that 6.5 million households were not ready for the conversion. African Americans, Latinos and those in rural areas were least likely to be prepared. Wednesday’s action in the House sets the stage for President Barack Obama to sign the legislation delaying the digital television conversion until June 12. Currently, all television broadcasters in the US are scheduled to switch to digital-only Feb. 17. The U. S. 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. On Wednesday, House Democrats passed the delay bill 241-158, using a procedure that requires only a simple majority. Legislators 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.

“Republicans thought they could give the Obama administration a defeat,” Szczepanczyk said. “All they did was delay it a week.” Szczepanczyk nevertheless added that the delay will not solve all the problems associated with the digital TV conversion. He explained that decisions over media policy are still made without much public involvement and with heavy influence from the National Association of Broadcasters and other industry groups.

“The main, underlying factors that led to this fiasco haven’t been addressed,” Szczepanczyk said. “This is emblematic about how media policy is made in this country.”

Szczepanczyk urged legislators and media reform advocates to consider additional options for the conversion and beyond. As one example, he recommended using rolling deadlines for broadcasters to provide opportunities to work out problems along the way. Beyond the conversion, Szczepanczyk said that the new digital spectrum creates thousands of new channels that could be used for non-commercial programming. Many cities today offer public access channels through cable television such as Chicago’s CAN TV. But with the new digital spectrum, non-profit organizations and others could broadcast programming to a wider audience. Non-commercial programming could be funded by taxes on broadcasters or on sales of new televisions, he said. Commercial broadcasters have no plans for these new channels.

“This is a huge windfall of new channels that are going to be handed to the same bunch of idiots who have been running TV since the ‘40s,” Szczepanczyk said. “(The broadcasters) are just planning to sit on it.”

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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