What a difference a few days makes.  At the beginning of this week, it was full speed ahead for the February 17 termination of analog television.  Then NTIA announced that it was out of money to pay for DTV coupons to assist the public in buying converter boxes so that analog TV sets will continue to work after the transition.  This action, in turn, caused Consumers Union to ask Congress for a delay in the transition, resulting in Congressman Markey’s office suggesting that the DTV transition might need to be delayed (as we wrote yesterday).  Today, the other shoe dropped as the Obama transition team formally wrote to Congress asking for a delay of the termination of analog television.  That letter leaves everyone asking – will Congress respond?  If so, what are the ramifications?

The NAB responded with a press release talking about how broadcasters are still prepared to meet the deadline, and how the deadline has focused all parties (TV stations, electronics manufacturers, cable and satellite companies) on doing what they need to do in order to be ready for the transition.  But the Obama team’s call for the postponement does not seem to be focused on the readiness of program providers to accomplish the switch, but instead on the readiness of viewers to deal with the new digital environment, especially given the lack of coupons for last minute shoppers still waiting to buy their converter boxes.  As we’ve written before, many in Washington are worried about the political ramifications of the transition – especially if millions of people wake up on February 18 and can’t watch the Today Show or Good Morning America.  And while that is a legitimate concern, one wonders if it will ever be possible to prepare everyone for the transition deadline.  Sure, if the deadline is postpone 4 or 5 months, there will be a marginal increase in people who are ready, but there will still be stragglers.  Catching up to them all may never happen until they are hit with the reality of their analog sets not working on the day after the transition, whenever that day may be.  If so, shouldn’t someone at least consider the costs that a delay will impose on broadcasters? 

Already, I’ve heard concerns expressed by broadcasters about all the preparations that have already been made for the final days of the conversion.  Tower crews have been scheduled for some of the last minute changes that need to be done right at the end of the transition – like the channel changes that some stations must implement.  In many cases, these crews will have to be canceled, as the channel switches can’t occur without some analog station shutting off.  Some stations will no doubt be subject to contract cancellation fees.  Many television broadcasters have prepared budgets anticipating a February turn-off of their analog channels, and when electricity can cost $20,000 a month for some stations, these stations may need to find significant money to pay for the continuing analog operations in a year when any new revenues are hard to come by.  Some stations have made deals to dismantle their old analog equipment and sell it off – and buyers may not wait for a delayed transition. And that is to say nothing about public confusion, and perhaps a sky-is-falling mentality that might set in if, after hearing for so long that the transition will occur on February 17, it doesn’t really happen.

A delay does have benefits.  As we wrote yesterday, it could give television stations time to prepare for analog nightlight operations, digital translators, and even distributed transmission systems.  It could give broadcasters more time to refine their message to consumers.  One thing that I’ve noticed in DTV announcements is the impression that over-the-air viewers need only get a converter box to receive digital television on their analog sets after the transition.  In fact, as the digital signal can be more subject to interference from obstructions and even from people moving in the same room as the TV set, using the proper antenna can be crucial in determining if the viewer receives a signal (see our post, here).  Even programming may benefit, as the transition is now scheduled for just a few weeks after most TV networks introduce their second season programs.  After last year’s writer’s strike, having the DTV transition interfere with the introduction of new network programs could have significant consequences to those networks. 

Certainly, there are considerations on both side – and probably considerations that I have not thought of here.  We’ll have to watch and see how Congress deals with these issues in what was to be the waning days of analog television.  And, if there is a change in the date, the FCC will have to decide how it will deal with all the carefully planned transition deadlines that it now has in place.  Certainly, the game is on.