American president-elect Barack Obama is among those calling for the postponement of the planned switch off of analogue television a matter of weeks before the deadline, just days before he is due to take office. The incoming administration is concerned that the government is not doing enough to help those in rural, deprived or minority communities prepare for the digital transition, describing support as “woefully inadequate”.

Nielsen estimates that 7.8 million households, nearly 7% of all television homes in the United States, are unprepared for the end of analogue television as they still do not have a set that can display a digital signal.

The government has already spent its allocated $1.3 billion budget for $40 coupons to enable consumers to buy subsidised digital television converter boxes. There is a waiting list of over a million requests for coupons which will only become available as unredeemed vouchers expire.

Changing channels
The incoming administration is now wondering, rather late in the day, whether this is change it can believe in. In a letter to lawmakers, the transition team has urged them to change the mandated date when all high power analogue transmissions will end. This would require new legislation.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said he was concerned about the confusion that could be created by postponing the deadline when most analogue television transmissions in American are planned to end.

“We spent a lot of time making sure everyone knows about February 17,” he told Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro in an interview before an industry audience. “What kind of message will that send if we are telling people that is the date and then we don’t do it?”

Any plans to delay the deadline are opposed by those that stand to benefit from the release of the analogue spectrum. That includes AT&ampT and Verizon, which are among those that paid the government $19 billion for the frequencies to be freed up by the transition.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the interests of free to air television and has been responsible for a major public awareness campaign for the switchover, has been diplomatically ambivalent about the call for a delay.

NAB president David Rehr said in a statement it “reaffirms the importance of free and local broadcasting in the fabric of American life,” and it “looks forward to a continuing dialogue with the new White House and new Congress to ensure a successful DTV transition.”

Despite a high profile communications programme, with regular announcements broadcast on television channels, the aggressive date set for analogue switch off in America was always likely to leave some unprepared.

The vast majority of viewers, who receive their signals from satellite or cable, will be unaffected. A significant minority of millions of viewers who are still dependent on analogue terrestrial television face the prospect of blank screens unless they convert to digital reception.