Outgoing FCC chair: 50/50 odds DTV date will move

by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

The odds are about 50/50 that the Feb. 17 transition date will move.

That's according to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who offered that handicap in an exit interview for C-SPAN's The Communicators series.

But Martin said it was critical to take some action to fix the DTV converter box coupon program (Viewers seeking the $40 government subsidy coupons have been put on a waiting list due to a cap on funding). Martin was echoing concerns he has expressed to Congress and journalists. He said he told Rep. Ed Markey in the fall there might be a problem with coupon availability.

Martin said he thought that the coupon box problem could be fixed relatively quickly, and without moving the date.

He said he was not sure the FCC would have picked that Feb. 17 date, since it was in the middle of winter, pointing out that it was Congress that set that date. He said if the date were moved, it could confuse viewers who have been told when the switch was going to be.

Martin said he thought the coupon program was well managed, given its resources, but that while the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which administers the program, had said it thought it would have enough money, Martin had not been convinced, and told Congress.

While NTIA did say it thought there was enough funding to cover the boxes, and still does. it did tell Congress back in November that there might be a slowdown or stoppage in coupon distribution if it ran into an accounting problem associated with its funding ceiling of $1.34 billion and recovering money from expired coupons, a problem it ran into at the beginning of last week.

Martin said that if there is a way to fix the program without moving the date, it would be preferable, but said he recognized fixing the coupon program was critical.

He pointed to the "significant" costs of moving the date, including contracts the FCC has with call centers and advertising, but added that the major cost was what had been invested in telling people about the hard date.

Martin's term as chairman ends Jan. 20, but he can remain at the FCC as a commissioner. It would be an unusual move, but Martin has not yet announced any future plans. Martin did not talk about his future plans in the interview.

Martin's last official meeting is Jan. 15.

article originally published at http://mobile.broadcastingcable.com/index.asp?layout=article&articleid=ca6629219.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey