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Digital TV test shows the FCC will need more phones*

September 10, 2008 |  3:27 pm
Analog TV set

Although Monday's apparently successful test of the digital TV conversion in Wilmington, N.C., still must be fully analyzed, new data released today indicates one thing: Federal officials are going to get a whole bunch of calls from confused viewers when the rest of the nation makes the switch in February.

The Federal Communications Commission said that 797 Wilmington residents called a special government helpline on Monday after the region's five commercial TV stations permanently turned off their analog signals at noon EDT and began broadcasting only in digital. On Tuesday, the number of calls dropped to 424.

The FCC noted that those first-day calls represented "less than one-half of 1%" of the region's 180,000 TV-viewing households. And combining the second day calls, the figure is still well under 1%.

But translate that to the rest of the country, which has 112.8 million TV-viewing households, and even a call volume of 0.5% would produce approximately 564,000 calls. In the Los Angeles market alone, that would be about 28,000 calls.

And if you figure that many of those calls in Wilmington probably came from people who depend on antennas to watch TV, the national impact could be much higher. About 8% of Wilmington viewers rely on antennas, compared with 12% nationwide. That's 50% more over-the-air-only viewers, which could boost the number of calls from across the country.

The FCC brought in extra staff to answer calls from Wilmington, but a spokesman could not provide an exact number today. Based on the calls, the FCC determined that most viewers ...

...were aware the switch was taking place -- only 23 callers said they hadn't known it was happening or hadn't known the date of the conversion.

"The results of the digital television switch in Wilmington shows that the collective efforts of the commission, the community and industry to inform viewers of the early transition in this local market were effective,  FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said in a news release today. (Download a PDF with the call data here.)

Most of the first-day calls related to technical problems: 232 people were unable to locate the new digital signals of certain stations; 178 callers had difficulties with their antenna or weak signals and 161 had trouble getting a digital-to-analog converter box working (meaning they'd see the message on analog TVs like the one pictured above.)

Wilmington firefighters and other organizations helped people, particularly the elderly, with converter box problems on Monday. The FCC is hoping to duplicate those efforts when the rest of the country makes the government-mandated shift at the end of the day on Feb. 17.

But given that the FCC devoted significant resources to raise awareness in Wilmington before the test, it might need an army of volunteers to go with all those people answering phone calls.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: An analog-only television set displays the message that began broadcasting at noon Monday after Wilmington stations switched to digital-only signals. Credit: Logan Wallace / Associated Press

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*UPDATED 6:01 P.M.: FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said in an interview that the percentage of calls in Wilmington, while low, shows the challenges ahead when the nation makes the change in February.

"If you extrapolate, that's still a lot of people who could end up having problems," he said. Martin noted that the FCC added about 30 to 35 people to its call center for the Wilmington test, and it's seeking an additional $20 million from Congress for digital transition-related efforts in part to pay for more people to answer the phones after the nationwide switch. 

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