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Nation Not Yet Tuning in Digital Television

The digital television transition is under way, but so far it is not going smoothly. Now the presumed presidential nominees are weighing in.

In case you haven't been paying attention or are not yet prepared — you are not alone — circle Feb. 17 on your 2009 calendar when analog broadcast signals will permanently go dark. The federal government is taking steps to educate the
, but critics like television industry analyst Phillip Swann say the government is not doing enough and may be setting the stage for "the technological equivalent of Katrina — with millions of people losing their TV signals overnight."

Sen. Barack Obama gave a wide-ranging interview on media policy with the trade publication Broadcasting and Cable published this week. The last question dealt specifically with DTV. Here's the e-mail exchange:

Q: If you become president, you will take office only weeks before the biggest technological change in TV history. How will you prepare for that, and will you put someone on your team
in charge of keeping tabs on the progress of that transition?

A: The transition will continue to require public-private cooperation and targeted outreach to seniors and lower-income communities. We have made coupons available for converter boxes, and we need to ensure that the neediest individuals are receiving them.

Estimates vary over the number of analog TV sets and households affected. According to Nielsen Media Research, 13 million households cannot receive digital-television signals, and an additional 6 million households have at least one other television set that would no longer work after the transition. Of particular concern are low-income, elderly, disabled, non-English-speaking and minority populations. Many of these groups tend to rely more on over-the-air television and, as a result, are more likely to be impacted by the digital transition. I am committed to working with the Senate and House Commerce Committees and the appropriate agencies to ensure that this transition happens without significant disruption and inconvenience.

It may soon be too late. Numerous studies and congressional witnesses have told different stories in recent weeks — with the government's own numbers showing half of all consumers who could lose service are not prepared and a coupon program that so far has been ineffective.

Whether the next president is Obama or Sen. John McCain, he may find himself dealing with DTV-gate as the first major crisis of his administration about 30 days into it. For what it's worth, McCain has been the key agitator on Capitol Hill to try to speed the digital transition along, as he noted in his own words before the Senate.

Watch the most recent House hearing on the DTV transition, and all of its problems, here via C-SPAN (about three hours in length). The hearing is run by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee on telecom and Internet.