Kohl Bill Would Turn DTV-Converter-Subsidy Program on Its Head

Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, introduced a bill that would make major changes to government plans for the transition to digital television, including creating task forces and advisory boards to oversee it and mandating broadcaster public-service announcements, cable education efforts and reporting requirements for both. It would also reprioritize the DTV-to-analog converter-box-subsidy program.

Kohl promised the bill at a hearing in the committee two weeks ago, at which the Government Accounting Office said the transition lacked coordination between the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is overseeing the DTV-to-analog converter-box-subsidy program.

It was a criticism echoed by FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein at the hearing, who called for an overarching advisory board. Adelstein is a former Aging Committee staffer.

The elderly are among those expected to need the most help in making the switch to digital.

NTIA chief John Kneuer said in a recent interview that the transition wasn't set up to be a "monolithic industrial policy established by the government," and that a decentralized message might be better than one under single "command and control" authority given that different industries had different agendas.

As currently structured, the NTIA's first round of subsidies for $40 coupons toward DTV-to-analog converter boxes is open to all households and adds up to about $1 billion. Another $500 million is on reserve in case it is needed and will be available only to over-the-air households that are more likely to lose TV service without the boxes after the February 2009 switch to digital broadcasting.

The bill would flip that around so that the over-the-air-only households would get first crack at the coupons and the $1 billion (actually $990 million). It would also extend the window for redeeming the coupons from three to four months.

The bill would legislate a number of education-initiative mandates the FCC is already considering. Those include mandatory broadcaster PSAs -- in this case, at least two 30-second spots per day, with at least one between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. -- cable and consumer retailer education efforts and requirements to report periodically to the FCC.

The bill also clears up what appears to be a loophole, saying that as the law is currently written--eligibility is confined to "hosueholds"-- nursing homes and assisted living facilities are not eligible to participate in the coupon program.

An NTIA spokesman declined comment on the bill.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.