Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has little confidence that either the federal government or broadcasters will pull off a trouble-free transition to digital television.
"I have great apprehensions that a fine mess lies before us," Dingell said last week during a subcommittee hearing on the status of plans to turn off analog television. "Consumers deserve a clear picture of the digital television transition."
Dingell, who recently threatened to delay the transition date to fix the problems, urged that the Bush administration and the broadcasting industry do much more to inform consumers about the Feb. 17, 2009, transition date. He also wants more clarity for the federal coupon program that will reduce the price of a digital-to-analog converter box by $40.
Representatives from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), Time Warner Cable, Best Buy and others told of ways they plan to inform the public of the transition. This includes over-the-air public service announcements and training for the sales staffs at retail stores.
Subcommittee Chairman Edward J. Markey, D-MA, was not satisfied with what he heard. During the hearing, he asked Michael Vitelli, a senior vice president at Best Buy, whether the electronics retailer would commit to stocking the converter boxes at all its locations. Vitelli responded that it would depend on demand.
Markey did not like Vitelli's answer. "We want to hear you say they'll be in all of your stores. I think our committee is going to insist that [the industry] do more from now on."
Markey also expressed displeasure when told Best Buy does not have warning labels on its analog-only television sets to warn buyers the set will not work after the DTV transition. "You should warn consumers that their analog set will not work in two years," the chairman said.
Jim Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting, represented the NAB at the hearing. According to NAB surveys, Yager said only about 40 percent of Americans have any idea that the DTV transition is underway, and among those who do, only 1 percent to 3 percent realize that the transition will be complete by February 2009.
In all, Yager said the NAB estimates that 69 million TV sets would potentially be impacted by the DTV transition.
At another Washington event, Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, predicted that demand for converter boxes would be much less than the predictions being made by broadcasters.
"Less than 15 percent of homes will really be shut out totally... [and] some of them want to be shut out," Shapiro said. "There is fear-mongering going on, and frankly, it has become a political issue. Democrats are saying the Republicans didn't give enough money, and the Democrats now are saying 'oh, we need more money.'"
Though there have been warnings that the transition might be delayed, there appeared to be little patience for such a change among members of Congress. The main reason is the analog broadcast spectrum is needed for emergency services.