Television watching should not be confused with the basic necessities of life, but television-watchers still deserved a hand from Congress in meeting a digital conversion deadline that is looking more and more like a messy collision between technology and tradition.
An effort by Consumers Union, and supported by the new administration, led Wednesday to a House vote on a compromise bill that delays until June 12 the conversion of American television to an all-digital system. The changeover, as everyone who watches TV has been reminded ad nauseam, was scheduled for Feb. 17, but millions of homes weren't ready.
Lack of viewer preparation is not a valid reason for delay. The government's shortage of coupons to help offset the costs of promised converter boxes is. So is the reported lack of readiness on the part of some broadcasters.
Republicans object -- rightly -- to the inclusion of $650 million for more coupons in what is supposed to be a huge economic stimulus package -- a poor fit indeed, and one that should be funded differently after a policy and not an economic debate. House Republicans earlier managed to block a similar bill that would have delayed the nationwide switch, voicing concerns about consumer confusion, the costs to networks of continuing dual systems and the delay in freeing the analog broadcast wireless spectrum for use by public safety agencies now waiting for it. But blanking the screens of many viewers, especially the poor and the elderly who have been relying on broadcast signals and television antennas, carries its own risk of missed emergency messages.
Gene Kimmelman, a Consumers Union vice president, has estimated as many as 10 million households depend on broadcast television, and 6.5 million homes were not ready for the switch to all-digital. They now have four more months of breathing room.