Congress likely to delay switchoff, some stations prefer to proceed
After a failed attempt last week, Congress is expected to back away from its analog TV shutoff deadline—just two weeks or less before the Feb. 17 date—leaving stations with the option of sticking to it or delaying the final switch to DTV for four months.
The old deadline looks good to station leaders who think the nationwide switchoff publicity campaign already has gone about as far as it can go—and who can’t afford the cost of running an extra transmitter four more months.
About 60 percent of pubTV stations lean toward sticking with the deadline, says John McCoskey chief technical officer at PBS, based on an informal poll of stations.
One such licensee is Lakeland PTV, operator of stations in Bemidji and Brainerd, Minn. “It’s going to cost us 25 to 30 grand if we keep on until June 12,” says Bill Sanford, g.m. and chief engineer at Lakeland. “We’ve gone above and beyond as far as educating people. . . . No matter whether we delay there will be some who raise a stink.” Rescheduling the switchoff to June “is kind of postponing the inevitable.” So Lakeland will ask for FCC permission to go all-digital before Congress legislates.
Choosing not to postpone, however, means finding out much sooner how many confused and angry viewers will heap their wrath upon the stations.
And that could be a lot of people. Of the 14.6 million homes that rely entirely on over-the-air TV reception, only 42 percent are expected to be prepared for DTV on Feb. 17, the consulting firm Centris estimated last month. (An additional 19.2 million households use antennas for only some of their TV sets, Centris said.)
PBS President Paula Kerger walked the tightrope in an AP interview last week, expressing hope that viewers won’t lose their over-the-air TV but explaining that stations may want to unplug analog transmitters on schedule even if Congress lets them postpone.
She estimated the pubTV system would have to spend an extra $22 million to keep analog up until June. The cost estimate was based on a survey by APTS and includes power and maintenance for the analog transmitters, tower leases, viewer-education outreach and staff time, PBS said.
The costs can really pile up if you have nine transmitters, as South Dakota Public Broadcasting does. Julie Andersen, executive director, said keeping all of them going until June would take around $60,000.
That won’t happen, though, because SDPB was already scheduled to turn off four of them before Feb. 17. A scattering of stations in other states already have done so.
Whatever stations choose to do, Congress appears to be moving toward delaying the deadline. Barack Obama tipped the balance, speaking up for delay two weeks before his inauguration. On Jan. 26, the Senate approved the four-month delay. Two days later, the House voted for delay, 258-168.
The House vote failed to pass, however, because congressional leaders suspended House rules to get quick decision, and that meant the bill needed a two-thirds vote
A new Senate bill, passed last week, will go to the House this week for consideration under regular rules, which require only a majority for passage.
Web page posted Feb. 12, 2009
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