(Adds byline, Nielson details, impact on companies)
By Kim Dixon
WASHINGTON Jan 8 President-elect Barack Obama
backs a move to delay a mandatory switch to digital television
signals on fears viewers are unprepared and as the government
has run out of coupons to help pay for converter boxes.
"The Feb. 17 cutoff date for analog signals should be
reconsidered and extended," John Podesta, co-chairman of the
Obama-Biden transition team said in a letter to key lawmakers
Congress mandated the Feb. 17 switch to digital television,
which will affect some 20 million consumers who do not already
use the technology. Owners of older television sets receiving
over-the-air signals must buy converter boxes, replace their
TVs with digital models, or subscribe to satellite or digital
But the government said earlier this week it had run out of
$40 discount coupons for consumers to help pay for converter
boxes needed to keep their sets from going black, leading a
major consumer group to call for a delay of the analog switch-
"With coupons unavailable, support and education
insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge
you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated cut-off
date," Podesta wrote.
The wading by Obama into the issue is likely to
significantly boost the case for delay, according to one
About 7.8 million homes, or 6.8 percent of total U.S.
television homes, are "completely unprepared," according to a
survey by Nielson Ratings of December data.
Cable and satellite TV companies that already deliver
digital broadcast signals were hoping to grow their subscriber
base after the switch-over on Feb. 17. Even with a converter
box, some subscribers will not be able to receive digital
signals over-the-air, forcing them to consider pay-TV options.
The two largest cable companies, Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) and
Time Warner Cable Inc TWC.N have both said they see an
opportunity to add new subscribers who in the past might not
have taken pay-TV services.
The switch is intended to free up more airwaves for public
safety uses and also to provide better television reception.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress' watchdog,
warned in September the government was not prepared for a last-
minute surge in coupon demand.
That prophecy came to pass earlier this week, when the
National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a
unit of the Commerce Department, said it exhausted its $1.3
billion budget for the program and nearly 1 million people are
on a waiting list for the coupons.
Lawmakers are so worried that it asked the Federal
Communications Commission to delay all complex matters before
the agency until the switch has occurred.
(Additional reporting by Yinka Adegoke in New York; Editing by
Gerald E. McCormick and Andre Grenon)