Congress on Thursday granted a four-month reprieve to the millions of consumers who risk losing access to television signals during the nation's switch from over-the-air television to digital.
Although broadcasters say they were ready for the Feb. 17 transition, requiring them to keep broadcasting in analog until June 12 gives more time for consumers to prepare their TV sets. It also lets the federal government revamp its converter-box subsidy program, which had run out of money, and issue coupons to the millions of people on a waiting list.
The House approved the bill, 264 to 158, a week after the Senate did the same. President Obama has promised to sign the legislation.
Consumer advocates say as many as 10 million viewers currently get their programming solely from over-the-air broadcasts and are unprepared for the digital transition. They need either a digital TV, a cable or satellite box or a digital-to-analog converter.
"Consumers are confused about where to buy their converter box, about which box to buy, how to hook up their box, what to do if they lose a channel they once got, and whether they need a new antenna," said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union. "Changing the date allows them more time to grapple with those questions."
Advocates who argued against a delay, including the Consumer Electronics Assn., said the new date could make the transition even more perplexing for some viewers.
TV stations will be allowed to seek a federal waiver to turn off their analog signals before the new deadline. So instead of nearly all broadcasters making the switch Feb. 17, stations now may do so at different times over the next four months.
It's unclear how many stations will seek early conversion.
"It's pretty wide open now," said Stan Statham, president of the California Broadcasters Assn., which represents 144 TV stations in the state.
Several broadcasters have already stated their intention to make the switch Feb. 17, regardless of whether Congress moves the date. Among them is Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc., which owns 39 TV stations across the country.
Broadcasters saying they will wait until June include News Corp., which owns 27 Fox stations in 18 markets, including Los Angeles and Chicago.
That could create a patchwork quilt of signals in some markets, with certain stations broadcast only in digital and others in both analog and digital. Some older converter boxes don't have the ability to handle both types of signals, so some viewers may have to unplug the device to watch one channel broadcast in analog, then plug it back in to watch another in digital.
"This date change will inject uncertainty into the market," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Assn.
The vast majority of converter boxes manufactured in recent months have the ability to handle analog signals, but consumers should check before buying, Kelsey said.
The National Assn. of Broadcasters formally backed the postponement, but some stations are unhappy about the cost of maintaining an analog signal for four extra months.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said the delay would cost broadcasters in his state $500,000 to $1 million in electricity costs to continue running analog transmitters along with the existing digital transmitters. He also said viewers could be confused, noting that advertisements are touting the Feb. 17 date.
"They're still being told this is what they should do," he said. "This is why people don't trust the government."
The law that set the Feb. 17 deadline allowed stations to petition the Federal Communications Commission to make the switch early. Some already have -- 143 of the nation's roughly 1,800 stations have gone all digital, and 60 more plan to do it before Feb. 17, according to the FCC.
But supporters said the delay was necessary, particularly to provide more money for the government's subsidy program for consumers who buy converter boxes. The Commerce Department, which administers a $1.5-billion program to send coupons worth $40 toward the purchase of a converter, ran out of money Jan. 4. About 3.2 million coupon requests are on the waiting list, Consumers Union said.
The economic stimulus package moving through Congress has $650 million to help replenish the converter box program and increase public outreach efforts.
"The legislation passed by Congress provides more time for Americans to prepare for the DTV transition and will allow more time for the government to fix the coupon program," said David Rehr, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters.
"America's broadcasters, which have spent the past decade preparing for this historic transition, are ready to make a successful switch."