By Bruce Mohl, Globe Staff
As the nation prepares to make the leap to digital television, Congress is trying to decide how many billions of dollars it's going to spend to make sure no TV viewer gets left behind.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, TV stations across America currently broadcast shows in both digital and analog formats. Roughly three years from now, Congress intends to shut off the analog signals and complete the transition to digital TV, which offers the potential for much sharper pictures, more programming options, and interactive services.
But not everyone is ready to make the jump. Americans own an estimated70 million TV sets that rely on free over-the-air analog signals. Without converter boxes that are expected to cost $60 apiece, those sets will go dark when the analog signals are shut off.
Those converter boxes will add up. So here's the billion-dollar question: Is this government-mandated transition to digital TV the equivalent of an eminent domain taking? By shutting off the analog signals, is the government required to pay for the converter boxes that will allow analog TVs to keep working?
The House has proposed paying a portion of the cost, setting aside $830 million to subsidize the purchase of converter boxes, plus another $160 million to administer the subsidy program. The Senate is willing to go further, budgeting nearly $3 billion for subsidies and administrative expenses. The branches are trying to reconcile their numbers.