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Feds prepare to premiere digital TV in North Carolina next week

September 3, 2008 |  8:46 am

A dozen federal workers from the nation's capital have spent a lovely summer in and around the quaint coastal city of Wilmington, N.C.

They've visited farmers markets and blueberry festivals. They've met the locals at senior centers and the Fourth of July celebration along the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington. Their boss, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin (pictured above), even has joined in the festivities, throwing out the first pitch at a Wilmington Sharks minor league baseball game.

While they've no doubt had chances to work on their tans and sample the local produce, it's been anything but a vacation.

For the last four months, as I wrote today, the FCC has been focused on Wilmington, which on Monday will serve as the guinea pig for the nation's conversion to digital TV. After visiting the city last week, I found broadcasters and federal officials confident that they've done everything they can to help people prepare.

But the unprecedented effort the FCC has put into public awareness -- shuttling a dozen staff members back and forth to Wilmington all summer to spread the word and answer questions at community gatherings -- leads some to question whether a smooth transition there foreshadows the same when the rest of the nation converts in February.

Martin said no test would be perfect, but the Wilmington experience already is paying benefits. Based on what they've learned there, Martin announced last month that he and his fellow commissioners will hit the road to raise awareness in Los Angeles and 79 other markets where many viewers depend on antennas to watch TV. If those viewers don't have new TVs or converter boxes, the switch to digital TV will be no vacation: They'll see nothing but a blank screen after broadcasters turn off their analog signals at the end of the day on Feb. 17 and start broadcasting only in digital.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin at a digital TV expo in Wilmington, N.C., on Thursday. Credit: Paul Stephen / For The Times