Minnesota broadcasters split on digital TV delayby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
The switch-over to digital-only TV broadcasts is a little over two weeks away. Maybe. There's widespread concern millions of households aren't ready for the transition. Congress and President Barack Obama may push back the digital deadline. Later this week, the U.S. House is expected to take a second look at a measure to delay the switch-over to June. But broadcasters throughout the state are split about the need for a delay.
St. Paul, Minn. — At the end of the day on Feb. 17, analog TV broadcasts are supposed to stop, pretty much across the country.
Some Minnesota TV stations contend many consumers aren't ready, and should get more time to prepare for the switch to digital-only TV transmissions. But others argue the vast majority of TV viewers are prepared and a delay will do more harm than good. "There's absolutely no consensus in the industry," said Jim du Bois, president of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association. He said some broadcasters lament that continuing analog broadcasts after Feb. 17, will cost them $1,000 or more a day.
Some broadcasters simply worry their old analog broadcast equipment won't hold up for much longer. Others figure they've been lecturing viewers that Feb. 17 is the deadline, and deadlines don't mean much if they keep moving. But du Bois said there's also substantial concern many viewers aren't ready.
"Some people want a delay because I think we are still hovering at 5.8 percent of Twin Cities households that are unprepared for the DTV transition," he said.
Many, maybe most, of those households don't have the $40 coupons the federal government promised to give people to help them buy converter boxes. The funding ran out for that effort. Folks seeking coupons are getting put on a waiting list.
There are three ways to get ready for digital TV. You can connect an old TV to a converter that turns digital signals into something a non-digital TV can use. Converter boxes generally cost $50 to $80.
Alternatively, you can hook up an old TV to a cable or satellite TV service or you can buy a digital TV. You may also need a new antenna if you're getting TV signals over the air.
WCCO-TV general manger Susan Adams Loyd is investigating the pros and cons of a delay, especially for outstate Minnesota. "We're talking to cable operators in the out-state area," Loyd said. "We're talking to entities such as churches and schools and city councils that all have different opinions on what may be best for their area. And we want to be open and absolutely consider all the pluses and minuses of extending that deadline."
A spokesperson for the Twin Cities' two Fox TV stations said Fox wants the transition to be smooth and successful. Fox said it believes the Obama administration shares that concern. But when asked if that means Fox supports a delay, the spokesperson would not say.
PBS said delaying the digital TV transition for four months would cost public TV stations $22 million. Locally, Twin Cities Public Television estimates a delay would cost it $10,000 per month.
TPT said a decision to postpone the digital switch-over should be based on a thorough assessment of how well people are prepared.
"The bottom line for us is that we really want to make sure our community is prepared," said Lorena Duarte, a spokeswoman for TPT.
On the question of delay, though, Duarte said TPT is neutral at this time.
"We're not for the delay. We're not against it," she said.
Duarte said TPT has incessantly reminded viewers about the digital change-over and how to prepare for it.
"I think we've done everything we can. In December, we ran 498 spots, which is 431 minutes. That's over 8 hours," Duarte said.
AT KTTC-TV in Rochester, general manger Gerry Watson believes his viewers are about ready as they're going to be. The station has run several tests in which it provides no sound and a snowy picture for its analog signal. Text scrolls across the screen warning viewers that if they're seeing a lousy picture, they're not ready for digital TV. Watson said the last test generated hardly any complaints.
"Cable is ready. Satellite is ready. The majority of our viewers are ready," Watson said.
Broadcasters say legislation Congress has been considering actually gives TV stations a choice of continuing analog broadcasts -- or stopping them if the deadline is delayed. To halt them, broadcasters would have to put out a digital signal that matches their analog footprint. Broadcasters would also have to give advance notice of any move to pull the plug on analog broadcasts.
KTTC-TV's Watson said he'd ax the analog broadcasts. "Absolutely," Watson said. "That's been our plan."
Other stations wouldn't. Twin Cities Public Television said it would continue analog broadcasts until whatever new deadline Congress may set. So, it's anybody's guess what may happen after Feb. 17.
- Morning Edition, 02/02/2009, 6:50 a.m.