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Come Together

We're not used to seeing a lot of cooperation between cable operators and broadcasters, or between Washington policymakers and anybody. So on these pages we have been cautiously pessimistic that the analog-to-digital switch next Feb. 17 would be the slam-dunk success that some others have predicted.

There could still be a train wreck. We're talking about a new transmission system designed to serve hundreds of millions of television sets in more than 100 million homes. But last week, a few things happened that made us begin to believe in miracles.

For starters, the Senate Commerce Committee, without debate, made a technical correction to the law related to the analog shut-off and recommended the government give $65 million to low-power television stations and translators now so they can make the switch to digital more swiftly. As we have reported endlessly, consumers who still have analog sets must get a converter box that will take the new digital signal from high-power stations and convert it to analog.

But most of those boxes don't let analog signals from low-power stations “pass through.” Without relief, many of these stations, which often serve minority populations who do not speak English, would have been essentially out of business. In his state, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said, there are hundreds of low-power stations that need help now. The decision to act was made in a snap, without any of the usual rhetorical red tape. Refreshing.

Also last week, for similar reasons, the Senate Commerce Committee decided that full-power TV stations located near the border with Mexico will be allowed to continue to broadcast in analog after the digital switch.

It turns out that thousands of U.S. households near the border still tune into Mexican stations (which aren't switching to digital), and wouldn't feel compelled to get the converter box. But if the stations in their U.S. market were digital-only, those households couldn't watch them. Financially, that would be bad news for those stations. Altruistically, by being allowed to remain as analog stations through 2014, those stations can transmit news and weather bulletins that locals should know about.

Also last week, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) proposed removing the restriction that prohibits residents of nursing homes from applying for the $40 digital converter box coupons the government is offering to help defray the cost of the conversion. Though the elderly probably need the converter box more than almost any other demographic, the NTIA had previously decided that nursing homes didn't qualify as households. Neither did homes that have post-office boxes as addresses, even though rural audiences ought to be greatly affected by the analog turn-off. The NTIA began to fill that gap last week, too.

But those two restrictions will always remain with us as examples of how peculiarly unhelpful bureaucracy can be if given the chance. Thank goodness somebody came to their senses. Let's hope everybody—the broadcasters, the cable industry, the retailers and the regulators—stays focused. Last week, things were looking up.