Congress voted last week to set the official date for the analog spectrum handover at Feb. 17, 2009. By then, analog television transmissions in America should be history. The DTV transition will be over, and the ultimate fate of local digital television broadcasting will finally be revealed.
It almost didn’t happen. By a two-vote margin, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the legislation last week containing the television deadline. The vote was 216-214. Because DTV was part of a larger budget-cutting reconciliation bill, it became mired in a showdown over such contentious political issues as Medicaid, Medicare and student loan subsidies.
The final bill’s language on digital television is the same as a version cleared by the Senate just before its holiday recess. The package includes up to $1.5 billion for a government subsidy program designed to help families in need purchase digital-to-analog set-top converter boxes.
Qualifying households will receive up to two $40 coupons to use toward purchase of converter boxes. Estimates are the viewers receiving a subsidy will have to pay about $20 out of pocket toward the cost of a converter box.
The Feb. 17, 2009, shutoff date, a compromise between the House and Senate, was purely political. It was designed to appease viewers, coming after the Super Bowl, one of the year’s major TV viewing events, and before the “March Madness” basketball tournaments.
Dropped from the final bill was a provision that would have allowed the cable television industry to downconvert all high-definition digital signals to standard definition for viewing by analog cable customers.
This could have a huge impact since 39 million cable subscribers, the vast majority, are still on analog cable systems. Unless some interim action is taken, many of those subscribers may have to upgrade to more expensive digital cable service in order to receive broadcast programming from local stations.
Also omitted from the legislation was any mention of two controversial broadcast issues: multichannel must carry and the broadcast flag copy protection system.