The Senate has reportedly once again approved the extension of the digital television transition date from February 17 to June 12 (see Press Release from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison here). This approval was necessary as the bill being considered by the House of Representatives is slightly different than the one passed by the Senate on Monday. Now – it’s back to the House, which failed yesterday to pass that bill by a 2/3 vote (see our post here). Under the expedited process that was being used, the failure to get a 2/3 vote meant that the legislation did not pass. The legislation now must got through the normal consideration process in the House, being first approved by committee, then voted on by the full House – with only a majority needed to approve the measure. The House is going to be out of session tomorrow through Monday, so the committee that now needs to consider the bill could review it next Tuesday, and then it could be voted on by the full House on Wednesday. So if all goes as planned, there could be an extension approved next week. If the House process somehow gets held up, the President and the FCC cannot act on any extension without action by Congress, as the February 17 date is written into law and can only be changed by a new law. Given that the transition is only 3 weeks away, and the extension of the transition is still not a certainty, what is a television station to do?
Initially, stations should proceed as if the February 17th deadline will stick as, for now, it is the law. So keep running all the required crawls, snipes and tickers promoting the upcoming termination of analog television. If an extension is passed, these announcements will only have caused more people to get ready for a transition that will occur sooner or later. But the extension will also allow stations to opt to transition before the new June deadline, and cease their analog operations early. How do these stations proceed?
First, no one knows for sure what procedures to follow – the FCC will probably issue some sort of public notice announcing new procedures if and when the extension bill is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President. Some think that the FCC may impose some sort of requirement that a station give some prior notice to the FCC and to the public if a station will in fact transition before any new deadline that is set. Some stations are already in preparations to transition on February 17 and either may not be able to return to their analog operations or may not want to do so. So any station that wants transition on February 17 even if the extension bill is approved should probably file a notice as soon as possible notifying the FCC of its intent. And they should start running on-air notices saying that they are shutting down their analog operation on February 17 no matter what. Stations also need to make sure that they really can go digital on that date – that their digital operation does not need some other station somewhere else to change channels first (as that other station may decide to keep their analog operation going if there is an extension, blocking the station from moving to their final digital home). All stations need to vet these issues with their own counsel, and probably their consulting engineer, as many of these procedures are based on rumor and surmise at this point until final rules are issued when and if the extension legislation is approved.
It’s been a long, stressful digital transition, and it appears to be ending with at least some degree of confusion – which is probably to be expected. But stations should do their best to keep their viewers informed of what is happening – as getting that information distributed is ultimately what these last minute legislative maneuvers are all about.