WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. government moved one step closer to shutting down the TV broadcast system that the nation has used to beam programming into people’s homes since the medium was dominated by Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar and other pioneers.
House Republicans pushed through by a razor-thin majority a budget-reduction plan that would force broadcasters to abandon their analog channels by 2009.
By a 217-215 count, the House approved the budget plan after a 25-minute roll call. The bill makes modest but politically painful cuts across an array of programs for the poor, students and farmers.
Included in the legislation is language forcing broadcasters to end their analog transmissions by Dec. 31, 2008. Republican lawmakers claim the plan pares the nation’s $319 billion deficit, but Democrats contend it is a way to pay for more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Although some of the frequencies Congress wants vacated by broadcasters will be used to aid public-safety communications, Congress estimates an auction of the available channels will bring in $10 billion. Outside estimates approach $30 billion.
Included in the legislation is a subsidy of $830 million that would help pay for set-top boxes that allow analog TVs to work with a digital signal. It also includes $500 million for communications equipment for fire, police and other emergency responders.
The Senate already has approved its budget plan with a different version of the DTV legislation that earmarks $3 billion for the set-top box program and $2 million for emergency communications equipment, hurricane relief efforts and other programs. The Senate also set an April 7, 2009, date for the changeover. Differences in the two bills will have to be worked out in a House-Senate negotiating committee.
Some consumer advocates decried the subsidy provided by the House as too little. Democrats estimate that it will cover only about 10 million households; consumer groups say the $830 million would cover only about a quarter of homes.
“The funding level provided is woefully inadequate to ensure that consumers aren’t forced to reach into their wallets to facilitate the government’s mandated transition to digital television,” said Jeannine Kenney of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.
But an alliance of companies that hopes to sell new services that travel on the frequencies broadcasters are scheduled to abandon called the House vote a positive move.
“This is a big win,” DTV Coalition executive director Janice Obuchowski said. “It is now critical that House and Senate conferees drive these wireless broadband and public-safety benefits home for all Americans by quickly delivering a package with a DTV hard date so this legislation can ultimately be sent to the president’s desk for signature.”
The DTV Coalition includes Alcatel, Aloha Partners, AT&T, Dell, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel and Microsoft.
The transition to DTV has been fraught with difficulty as the cable, broadcast and consumer electronics industries have struggled to change the way Americans get broadcast TV.
Broadcasters currently are required to stop analog transmissions at the end of next year, or when 85% of the U.S. TV-viewing audience receives a digital signal, whichever comes later. The 85% number has long been considered an unreachable goal. The National Assn. of Broadcasters contends that there are 73 million TV sets in use in that rely on free, over-the-air broadcasting as their only source for TV reception. A recent study by the GAO found that 20.5 million TV households rely exclusively on over-the-air TV reception.
The budget bill would slice about $50 billion from the deficit by decade’s end by curbing rapidly growing benefit programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and student-loan subsidies. Republicans said reining in such programs, whose costs spiral upward each year automatically, is the first step to restoring fiscal discipline.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.