The shift to digital television is every bit as significant as the change to color from black and white half a century ago. But there is a big difference: When broadcasters switch solely to digital, old analog televisions simply won't work unless they are hooked to cable, a satellite dish or a converter box. Fifty years ago, at least Bonanza still came in over the old set even if it wasn't in living color.
According to Nielsen Media Research, 6.5 million American households would have no workable television at all if the switch were flipped today. So it would be wise for Congress to follow President Obama's lead and delay the change from Feb. 17 until June 12. That would allow time for the government to get its program back on track to offer $40 coupons toward the purchase of converter boxes and for consumers, who are now much more aware of the impending change, a better chance to be ready.
While the measure passed the Senate unanimously, it failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority needed under the special rules used in the House Wednesday. However, it could come up for a floor vote next week under a plan that would require only a simple majority.
Just in the last month an additional 1.3 million households have prepared for the change by buying new TVs, hooking up to cable or purchasing a digital converter box. Slowing down the transition has merit, even though the delay will cost local broadcasters who must carry the weight of dual systems for a while longer.
The poor and minorities are disproportionately affected by the changeover, as they are likeliest to have old TVs and to rely on an antenna. In the greater Tampa Bay area, Nielsen says that just over 4 percent of households are unready for the change, but among African-Americans and Hispanics the percentages are 7.5 and 8.6, respectively.
In an austere time when other entertainments are too costly, delaying the changeover for a few months to allow an orderly switch is simply prudent and sensible.