NEW YORK – The big broadcast networks, already suffering from terrible ratings, will catch a break if the planned transition to digital signals is put off until June.
Pushed by the Obama administration, the Senate approved the delay and the House is expected to follow suit. Instead of Feb. 17, the deadline will be June 12.
That means the transition — expected to leave millions of households at least temporarily without TV pictures — will take place after the TV season is over. With warmer weather and more reruns, fewer people are watching ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in June than in February, anyway.
There's also the expectation that more homes will be ready to receive the digital signals by then. The latest estimate by Nielsen Media Research is that 6.5 million American homes still aren't prepared for the switch.
"June is a much softer landing for both the networks and the viewers," one network executive said Tuesday.
While still trying to get viewers ready for the switch, the TV industry was preparing for the expected fallout. The traditional February "sweeps," when ratings are used to set local advertising prices, was put back to March. Networks made programming changes.
CBS and ABC, for example, scheduled more reruns than usual for late February to keep fresh episodes of series available for March. CBS made sure that its big events for February (the Grammys and starts of new "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race" seasons) happened before Feb. 17.
PBS made certain to schedule its high-profile series "We Shall Remain" in April to keep it away from the transition deadline. Univision rescheduled its popular music awards show, "Premio lo Nuestro," for March instead of February.
The Feb. 17 date was chosen in part because the National Football League applied pressure to make sure the switch was after the Super Bowl, said Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president for the Carat media buying agency. ABC had hoped to put off the Oscars, scheduled for Feb. 22, to March, she said.
The digital transition would have been another blow for networks still trying to recover from the effects of last year's writers strike. Viewership is down at disturbing rates: 11 percent for ABC, 12 percent for NBC and 14 percent for Fox. Only CBS, with its strong dramas and new hit "The Mentalist," is up over last year (1 percent).
A Feb. 17 switch would have only worsened those numbers. An estimated 13 percent of viewers for the English-language broadcast networks get analog signals, Nielsen said. Many who are making the digital switch are doing it by ordering cable and satellite — giving them many more networks to watch as an alternative to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
The change is expected to be particularly hard on Spanish-language networks, since a larger percentage of their audience gets over-the-air broadcast signals. The three local markets with populations least-prepared for the shift — Albuquerque, Dallas and Houston — have a large number of Spanish-speaking households.
The Spanish-language networks such as Univision have spent a great deal of money advertising the Feb. 17 cutoff to prepare its audience. It means the delay, while welcome in some respects, could cause more confusion.
A delay will also be expensive for many network affiliates, some of which will have extra power costs or have to make new arrangements to keep the analog signals working. PBS estimates that a delay to June 12 will cost its local stations $22 million.
The federal legislation allows local affiliates the flexibility to make the switch earlier than June if they want to. That flexibility helped the networks support the delay, along with a desire not to alienate a new administration, which had pushed for it.
Given that a new TV antenna is one way to help many homes continue to receive a signal without signing up for cable, there's another good reason for the delay, said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
"It's a lot easier to put an antenna on your roof in June than it is in February," he said.