Trying to calm concerns that millions of Americans might abruptly lose TV service, Congress voted Wednesday to delay the coming digital television transition by four months, setting a June 12 date for the end of old-school analog transmissions.
The move kicked off a frenzy among broadcasters who were weighing the added costs — up to $60,000 per month in electric fees for some stations — and the complications of changing a Feb. 17 switch they have touted to viewers for more than a year.
In the Tampa Bay area, executives at the area's biggest TV stations have traded e-mails for days about collectively sticking to the original Feb. 17 date for cutting analog signals — something Tampa public broadcaster WEDU-Ch. 3 is already telling viewers it will do. The new law allows an option to ask the FCC for permission to stick with Feb. 17.
The growing consensus: If every major station agreed to stick with the Feb. 17 date, everyone would switch. But Bill Schneider, general manager at Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13, said owner News Corp. now plans to stick with the June 12 date for all the stations it controls.
That means the Tampa Bay area's largest PBS station will drop its analog signal Feb. 17, while a popular broadcast station, WTVT, won't fully go digital until four months later.
"It may be that, in trying to make things simpler, the government has made this a much more complicated process," said Mike Pumo, general manager for NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8, who sent e-mails to general managers at the market's major stations gauging interest in sticking with the Feb. 17 date. "We'll know more about what everybody's doing at the end of the week. But I think they've made a mess of this."
The U.S. House voted 264-158 to change the transition date established by Congress three years ago and delayed twice. The Senate passed the bill unanimously last week, and the measure now heads to President Obama, who plans to sign it.
The Nielsen Co. estimates 6.5 million households are not ready for the switch. Once analog signals end, viewers must have cable or satellite TV, a TV capable of receiving digital broadcasts or a converter box to translate digital signals for an analog set.
The Federal Communications Commission estimated in November that 163,000 households in the Tampa Bay area and 650,000 homes statewide did not have cable or satellite TV service.
The Obama administration asked for a delay weeks ago, citing a wait list of more than 3 million people who want government-provided coupons to purchase converter boxes.
WEDU says it cannot afford the extra $10,000 per month to keep analog broadcasts going.
C. Patrick Roberts, president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters, said at least five stations in Fort Myers have similar plans to ask the FCC to keep the Feb. 17 date.
The FCC said up to 479 stations nationwide might proceed with that date, regardless of Congress' action.
Roberts expects that when the dust clears, up to 60 percent of Florida stations could switch early — in part because the June 12 date falls less than two weeks into hurricane season.
"I'm telling people if you don't go in February, then switch in April," he added. "The last thing you want to do is make this switch in hurricane season."