The DTV Delay: It's Not About Slackers

You may have heard that the transition to digital television (DTV) is being postponed to June. A lot of people are upset about the delay, and attribute it to people failing to ignore the warnings and not getting their act together. That's wrong. The delay is needed not because people failed to act, but because they did exactly what they were told to do. The problem is that when they did the system broke.

The GAO reported way back in September that the coupon program was likely to break under stress. If, at that time, the Bush administration or Commerce Department had taken proper action, they could have corrected the problem. They did not, instead leaving the mess for the next administration to clean up.

The primary effect of the legislation is to fix many of the problems with the coupon program, the foremost being insufficient funds and wonky accounting rules that prevented printing coupons for everybody who needed one. If these had been done back when the problems were identified, we wouldn't need an extension. Making these corrections now, with less then two weeks before the cutover, means an extension is required so they can have an effect.

The coupon program failure was exacerbated by a bad messaging. People didn't unduly delay in requesting their coupons. The message was very clear: digital is coming is February 2009. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that most people waited until January to act. In hindsight, it would have been better to let people know that digital is here now and implore them to action.

I think the coupon program was a dumb idea, but it's our dumb idea. It should be allowed to run to completion, as intended. This legislation will allow it to do that.