TV Stations Say Digital Switch Delay Will Be Costly

The U.S. House of Representatives is again trying to postpone the scheduled mid-February move from analog to digital television — this time until June.

The Senate has already passed two bills to give viewers with older analog sets — who still get their TV through an antenna — more time to get a new digital set or a digital-to-analog converter box that lets them use their old TVs.

The House is scheduled to vote this week after a vote last week ran into some interference. Opponents say a delay would be a financial strain on stations that have already powered up their new digital transmitters and are just waiting to shut down their old analog units on Feb. 17.

Many TV stations are struggling. Their audience is shrinking, and some networks are predicting ad revenue will drop 7 percent or more this year.

'That's A Tough Pill To Swallow'

It's clear things are tough in the home of rabid Red Sox and Celtics fans when a Boston station has to lay off its sports reporter. The Univision affiliate in Boston, WUNI, airs Spanish-language entertainment programs and produces a news show popular with the region's growing Hispanic community. Its news staff was small even before layoffs last month — the show anchor doubles as the news director.

The station transmits both digital and analog signals. Most TV stations are required to keep broadcasting in analog until the scheduled national switchover in two weeks. But many stations like WUNI have already powered up their new digital transmitters to make sure they're working properly. General Manager Alex von Lichtenberg is anxious that the tube components in his analog transmitter are about to burn out.

"An individual transmitter tube for a full-power transmitter like ours runs somewhere ... between $35,000 and $45,000," says von Lichtenberg.

All for something that was supposed to be obsolete in just a couple of weeks. Now, Congress may tell him to keep his analog transmitter plugged in for another four months, in addition to the new digital transmitter he's already running. Von Lichtenberg says he didn't budget for this.

"Our analog transmitter, the power costs on that are over $10,000 a month," he says. "You add four more months at full power, that's $40,000. Again, in these times, that's a tough pill to swallow for a small operation like ours."

It's a tough pill for Vermont Public Television, too. Community Relations Director Ann Curran says her network will have to cut programming to keep its analog signal on the air. She says she's frustrated because she feels her viewers are ready for digital TV. The station has been running announcements and answering questions about the transition for two years.

"Hundreds and hundreds of calls," says Curran. "A lot of them are people who are in rural areas, isolated. They might get just one or two TV stations over the air. So we know how important we are to people."

Backers Of Delay Say Viewers' Needs Paramount

While proponents of the delay are sympathetic to the Vermont station's predicament, they say their primary responsibility is to those viewers who might not be ready.

"These are people who are for the most part lower-income, elderly, minorities — but not exclusively," says Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who's been leading Democratic efforts to pass a delay bill in the House. To get more Republicans on board, some lawmakers have proposed letting hard-hit stations opt out of analog early. Waxman is not so sure that's a good idea.

"It's hard to say who should get a delay and who shouldn't, without being quite arbitrary," Waxman says.

Broadcasters had asked for financial assistance. But there are no provisions in either the Senate or House versions of the bill to help pay for keeping analog signals on the air until June.

Curt Nickisch reports for member station WBUR.

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