RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
House lawmakers could vote as soon as today on a bill that would give television viewers four more months to prepare for the transition to digital TV broadcasting. February 17 is the current deadline. Many consumers have already bought new TVs or converter boxes for their old analog sets. But there's concern that millions of others are not ready for the switch. The Senate already passed legislation extending the deadline. But the House version is generating opposition from stations. They say a delay would cost them a lot of money.
Curt Nickisch of member station WBUR in Boston reports.
CURT NICKISCH: You know, television ad revenue is falling here in Red Sox and Celtics country when a Boston station has to lay off its sports reporter.
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Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
NICKISCH: WUNI TV produces a Spanish language news show popular with the regions growing Hispanic community. It was a small news staff even before layoffs last month. The show anchor doubles as the news director.
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Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)
NICKISCH: Right now, the station goes out over the airwaves in both digital and analog, and that makes general manager Alex von Lichtenberg anxious. The tube components in his analog transmitter are about to burn out.
ALEX VON LICHTENBERG: An individual transmitter tube for a full-power transmitter like ours runs somewhere in the vicinity between 35 and $45,000.
NICKISCH: All for something that was supposed to obsolete in just a couple of weeks with the scheduled switch to digital TV. 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.
VON LICHTENBERG: Our analog transmitter, the power costs on that is over $10,000 a month. But, you know, you add four more months of power, that's $40,000 again. In these times, that's a tough pill to swallow for a small operational like ours.
NICKISCH: 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's frustrated because she feels like her viewers are ready for digital TV. Curran's station has been running announcements and answering questions about the transition for two years now.
ANN CURRAN: Hundreds and hundreds of calls, 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.
NICKISCH: While proponents of the delay are sympathetic to the station's predicament, they say their primary responsibility is to viewers who may not be ready.
HENRY WAXMAN: These are people, for the most part, who are lower income, elderly, minorities - but not exclusively.
NICKISCH: Congressman Henry Waxman of California has been leading the Democratic effort to pass a delay bill in the House of Representatives. To get more Republicans on board, some members of Congress have proposed letting hard- hit stations opt out of analog early. Congressman Waxman is not so sure that's a good idea.
Rep. Waxman: It's hard to say who should get a delay and who shouldn't without being quite arbitrary.
NICKISCH: 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. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.
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