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Digital TV transition kicks off in Wilmington, N.C.

September 8, 2008 | 10:43 am

With the flip of a 7-foot-tall ceremonial switch, five TV stations in Wilmington, N.C., today became the first in the country to cut off their analog signals and broadcast only in digital. It was first major test of the government-mandated conversion coming to the rest of the country in February.

Local and federal officials switching to digital TV in WilmingtonBroadcasters and government officials, including Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin, gathered at City Hall in the coastal community to commemorate the conversion. They counted down the last 10 seconds to the noon EDT conversion as if it were a New Year's Eve celebration.

Then Martin and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo toggled the giant  switch from "Analog" to "Digital." A nearby set tuned to the analog signal of WSFX, the local Fox affiliate, went dark at the same moment, replaced a few seconds later by a message telling viewers the analog signal no longer worked.

"Let's make history. First in flight. First in digital,'' Saffo told the crowd of about 150 people earlier this morning, repeating the slogan the FCC and broadcasters have used for the test in North Carolina, where the Wright brothers made their first flight. "We're daggone proud of it."

The five commercial stations in the region, just the nation's 135th-largest media market, volunteered to serve as the guinea pigs for the switch.

Digital signals offer viewers more channels and clearer pictures. But those benefits come with a potential downside -- people who rely on rooftop antennas or rabbit ears to watch TV must have a digital set or a special converter box to see the broadcasts. The federal government is offering each household two $40 coupons to purchase converter boxes, which generally cost between $40 to $70.

About 8% of Wilmington viewers and 12% nationwide rely on antennas, according to the Nielsen Co. Cable, satellite and phone company TV customers will still be able to see the pictures because those companies either will convert the signal back to analog for all their viewers or provide equipment to do so in the home.

The conversion followed ...

... four months of aggressive public awareness by broadcasters and unprecedented local involvement by the FCC (such as helping residents understand how a converter box works). Although Tropical Storm Hanna threatened to delay the test, switching off the analog signals today and relying only on digital transmissions was the relatively easy part.

The difficult task will be assessing the impact.

"We still have a lot to learn from Wilmington,''  FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who came up with the idea of a test market, told the gathering this morning.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters will interview residents on the street and conduct a telephone poll. And the FCC plans to study the results of the test to determine who had problems switching to digital and where the agency might need to focus efforts to ensure a smooth transition when broadcasters in the rest of the country turn off their analog signals at the end of the day on Feb. 17. Lawmakers, along with consumer and civil rights groups, have raised concerns about senior citizens, minorities and low-income residents, who tend to rely more heavily on free, over-the-air TV.

Already today, seniors are looking like a group that needs additional help. The FCC contracted with fire departments and other organizations in the Wilmington area to assist people who have difficulty obtaining or installing digital-to-analog converter boxes. Andrea Good, fire and life safety educator for the city of Wilmington, said she had received about 15 calls this morning.

"It’s mostly elderly people who can’t install their boxes," said Good, who went to a low-income senior citizens apartment building this morning with three firefighters to install converter boxes for two residents.

Officials today praised the cooperation between the government, broadcasters and community organizations.

"The success of Wilmington is not what happens at 12 noon today when we flip the switch," Martin said. "The measure of success ... is what's going to happen next February and what we're going to be able to learn from what occurs here in Wilmington that we can take around the country and implement these lessons to help the process go as smooth as possible."

Martin has said the FCC has already learned lessons from Wilmington. After seeing the benefits of having staff on the ground, working with community organizations and holding events to promote and explain the transition, the agency is dispatching commissioners and staff to Los Angeles and the 79 other markets with the most over-the-air-only households during the next six months to hold town-hall meetings and other gatherings.

But that effort will fall short of the intensive outreach the FCC has done in Wilmington, where a dozen staffers have shuttled back and forth from Washington since May, participating in more than 300 events. That's led Consumers Union to question how representative the Wilmington test will be.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: From left, Wilmington, N.C., Mayor Bill Saffo and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin flip a symbolic switch during a ceremony heralding the transition from analog to digital TV. Credit: Logan Wallace / Associated Press

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