WASHINGTON — The transition to digital television next month has been hailed as the biggest advance in over-the-air TV since the advent of color, but it's shaping up as a black eye for the government and risks leaving millions of viewers without a picture.
On Thursday, President-elect Barack Obama asked Congress to postpone the federally mandated switch to all-digital broadcast television, called DTV, scheduled to take place Feb. 17.
The unspecified delay would give the government time to fix a consumer-help program that ran out of money this week. But it also would set back the long-promised benefits of digital TV, which offers sharper pictures and more free channels while opening valuable airwaves for public safety and wireless Internet access.
The government took in $19.6 billion last year by auctioning existing analog TV airwaves to telecommunications companies for new wireless services, but Congress allocated less than $2 billion to educate consumers about the transition and issue coupons to buy needed converter boxes.
Now an estimated 7.7 million households nationwide may find their screens going dark next month.
Although a delay is far from certain, given potential opposition from broadcasters, public safety agencies and telecom companies eager to start using those new airwaves, there was plenty of frustration Thursday with the way the digital TV transition has been managed.
"The list of who's to blame is long," said Joel Kelsey, a long-time critic of the transition as policy analyst with Consumers Union, which also called for a delay this week. "It was a giant miscalculation by our federal government."
Some lawmakers urged a delay to give the incoming administration more time to correct problems, but others thought the clamor for a postponement was "just panic." Some congressional leaders simply weren't ready to weigh in. A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the relevant committees were working with Obama's transition team to solve the problems.
Congress decided in 2005 to require all TV stations to broadcast only in digital to free up airwaves for public safety use in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and for auctioning to telecom companies to shrink the federal deficit.
People with cable, satellite or phone company TV services will continue to receive broadcast stations. But those who rely on antennas must have either a newer TV with a digital receiver or get a converter box. No-frills versions of those boxes cost $40 to $70. To offset the expense, the federal government allocated $1.5 billion to provide households with up to two $40 coupons.
But Monday, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration said the program had used all allocated funds. The agency has a waiting list of about 1.1 million requests, which can be filled as unused coupons reach their 90-day expiration. So far, about 13 million of the 41 million coupons mailed have expired.
Still, the nearly 8 million households that rely on antennas and are unprepared for the conversion face the prospect of paying full price for converter boxes during a recession -- or watching their TVs go blank after the switch. About 535,000 of those homes are in the L.A. market, the Nielsen Co. says.
In a letter Thursday to key members of Congress, John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama's presidential transition team, said the Feb. 17 conversion should be delayed, though he did not specify for how long. But with the incoming administration facing economic and foreign policy crises, it does not want to add a major problem with TV viewing in its first weeks in office.
Podesta cited troubles with the converter box coupon program as well as inadequate efforts to educate the public about the switch, and the need to help elderly, poor and rural Americans prepare for it.
"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," Podesta wrote.
Podesta said the waiting list for coupons could climb to more than 5 million by early February. Obama is planning to include an additional unspecified amount of money for the digital TV switch in the economic stimulus package that is still being drafted.
"The Obama administration deserves time to bring order to what has been an appallingly mismanaged process by the Bush administration," said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.).
Some Republicans said Obama was needlessly concerned when all Congress needed to do was make small fixes to the program.
"We don't need to bail out the DTV transition program because it isn't failing, and reintroducing uncertainty to the switch will make things worse instead of better," said Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas). "Ditching the deadline and slathering on more millions of taxpayer dollars, however, is just panic."