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Tropical storm could blow digital TV test off course

Wrightsville Beach, N.C. resident

They're holding on to their hats around Wilmington, N.C., today as Tropical Storm Hanna rumbles toward the Carolina coast. The storm also could allow area residents to hold on to their old TV sets a little longer, as federal officials and broadcasters said they might postpone Monday's planned test of the digital television conversion in Wilmington if Hanna causes significant damage.

The storm, which is approaching hurricane strength, is expected to make landfall just south of Wilmington early Saturday local time. That's causing some angst for broadcasters at the region's five commercial television stations, which are scheduled at noon Monday to be the first in the country to permanently switch to digital signals.

Broadcasters and Federal Communications Commission officials discussed the situation in two conference calls this week and plan to have another conversation Sunday morning to decide if they will postpone the digital conversion. But based on the forecast, which calls for the storm to move quickly through the region, they remained optimistic today there would be no delay.

"I think it's still going to end up taking place," FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin told reporters today. "We're obviously watching the tropical storm very closely."

The FCC plans to post an announcement about the test on its website by 2 p.m. EDT Sunday.

Thom Postema, vice president and general manager of Fox affiliate WSFX, said he was 90% certain the switch would occur as planned Monday.

"We’ll probably get some rain and some wind and some tree damage and maybe some power outages, but we’re hoping everything will clear up by Saturday afternoon and we’ll be able to move forward with this," said Postema, sounding like a true veteran of a stretch of southeastern coast known as "hurricane alley."

"We all really want it to happen," Postema added of Monday's digital conversion. "We’re ready to go, and we all agree we want to do it."

Wilmington broadcasters volunteered ...

... to be the test market for the nationwide digital TV conversion that will take place in February. The dry run in Wilmington (which may not be so dry after all) is designed to identify problems in preparing over-the-air viewers, who need new digital TVs or special government-subsidized converter boxes for their old sets in order to see the digital signals.

Consumer and civil rights groups are concerned that low-income and minority viewers, who depend on free over-the-air TV for news and information, might be left in the digital dark.

The FCC and broadcasters have engaged in an aggressive public-awareness campaign around Wilmington since plans for the test were announced in May. A poll of Wilmington-area residents released last week by the National Assn. of Broadcasters found that 77% of respondents knew the date of the switch.

Postponing the test would require more ads and outreach to publicize the new date, Postema said.

FCC officials knew there were potential weather problems in conducting the test in Wilmington during the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. The stations will continue to broadcast a message in analog through September, the region's most active hurricane month, with information for viewers who still need to get new equipment.

The FCC also said the Wilmington stations would be able to resume use of their analog channels in the event of a hurricane or other emergency. The stations will have that ability until the end of the day on Feb. 17, when law mandates that all broadcasters must stop using the analog airwaves. Fortunately for Wilmington, that's well after the end of hurricane season.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: Local resident H.M. Poole holds his hat in the stiff breeze today on Wrightsville Beach, N.C., near Wilmington, as Tropical Storm Hanna approached. Credit: Dave Martin  Associated Press

 
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