Analog messages may be broadcast following the DTV transition

February 17 may not be the absolute end to analog TV transmission in the US, should the House follow the Senate's lead in passing legislation enabling analog broadcasters to continue serving public service messages for one month.

Last Thursday, by unanimous consent, the Senate passed a bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D - W.V.), that will allow local television stations to continue a limited form of broadcasting on analog channels for 30 days following the February 17, 2009 transition date.

What will stations show? For now, only public service messages informing viewers that the transition has taken place, and showing a phone number viewers may call for assistance; and also messages regarding "public health and safety or emergencies as the [Federal Communications] Commission may find to be consistent with the public interest." Conceivably, that could include severe weather warnings and police alerts.

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The House counterpart to Rockefeller's bill was introduced last September, but currently remains in committee. National Association of Broadcasters Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton applauded the Senate's passage last week, saying the permission of this limited service "will give broadcasters one final resource to ensure that no TV viewer is left behind due to insufficient information."

Last October, the Bush Administration signaled its opposition to the measure, with the chief of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Meredith Attwell Baker, telling reporters she believed any break broadcasters received could be leveraged to implement a delay in the transition. At the time, Baker felt even the appearance of a delay could only serve to confuse consumers.

The split between Congress and the President may have arisen as a result of two opposing views of a DTV transition test in Wilmington, Delaware last September. During that test, the transition switch was thrown for a short time, after residents were warned well in advance of what was coming.

Afterward, the test was immediately proclaimed a success, before members of Congress started evaluating the small print: For instance, although just a few hundred calls were reported after the switch was thrown, quite a few of them were to the local fire department, tying up emergency lines. Senators warned that such a problem, magnified to a national scale, could become catastrophic.

But that warning was heeded two different ways, with opponents to post-transition messages saying this was all the more reason why measures to educate viewers of the hard-and-fast 2/17/09 date should be stepped up. "We feel that certainty is best at this point. Delay confuses consumers," Multichannel News quoted Baker as saying.

Last week, the other point of view became championed...by none other than Meredith Baker, who told reporters her earlier concern had been that an extension until March could conceivably have gone on until August or later.

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