In a surprising defeat, House Republicans today beat back legislation pushed by President Barack Obama that would have delayed the transition from analog to digital television broadcasting by four months.

The move comes just a day after the Democratic-controlled Senate unanimously passed a measure to delay the switchover from February 17 to June 12 to give the 6.5 million U.S. households (according to The Nielsen Company) that don't have digital TV sets time to  buy converter boxes.

Broadcasters had opposed the delay, complaining it would cost an estimated $22 million to continue airing shows in both analogue and digital for an additional four months.  To assuage them, the bill would have allowed stations to make the change before the new deadline if they permitted public safety agencies to use the vacant airwaves as soon as it became available. (Congress in 2005 voted to switch broadcast signals from analog to more efficient digital to free up so-called "white spaces," areas of unused wireless spectrum, for commercial wireless services and interoperable emergency-response networks.)

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is tasked with giving out $40 coupons to subsidize the $50 to $70 cost of TV converter boxes, had pushed for the delay, because it ran out of the vouchers and nearly 2.6 million viewers were put on a waiting list for them. People with digital TVs, who subscribe to digital cable service or have satellite dishes, don't have to worry about getting a converter or taking any other steps when the change takes effect.

The delay was expected to free up funds from coupons that expired because they were not redeemed within the 90-day period allotted. Lawmakers said that only about half of the $1.5 billion allocated for coupons has been paid out for redeemed coupons – and that some 300,000 coupons are re-issued weekly, because recipients didn't cash them in.

But Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who spearheaded opposition to the measure, said House GOPers would prefer to come up with the necessary funds (an estimated $250 million) for the coupons now instead of stalling the transition.

© Jeff McIntosh