All-Digital TV To Make Its Debut In N.C. Town

Here are three options to keep your picture sharp for the digital conversion:

  • Get a converter box and take advantage of a government-funded program that entitles you to receive up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to subsidize the cost.
  • Subscribe to cable or satellite service.
  • Buy a new digital-ready TV.

Help! I've Got Rabbit Ears!

Confused about what to do to get ready for the digital TV transition? HearUsNow.org, a Consumers Union project, is one good place to start. It offers links, background and a free Consumer Reports guide.

More Resources

The Digital Television Transition Coalition — an alliance of broadcasters, electronics manufacturers and industry associations — maintains DTVTransition.org. The Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition publishes its own consumer guide. The Federal Communications Commission hosts DTV.gov.

The birthplace of broadcast legends David Brinkley and Charles Kuralt will add another page to its television history on Sept. 8. That's when Wilmington, N.C., will transition to digital television — months before the rest of the nation.

But not everyone in and near this city is ready.

Lewis Felton lives in a one-gas-station town deep in the rural fringe of Wilmington's television market. He has a TV set in just about every room, but the kitchen is his favorite place to watch the news — and it's where he has spent several days wrestling with his fairly new, though analog, color TV.

He purchased two digital TV converter boxes and combed through the directions. He even made the nearly hourlong drive to a town hall meeting in Wilmington, where he shook his rabbit ears at Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, demanding a solution to the dilemma in his kitchen. It was Martin's first public appearance in Wilmington, but not his last.

It's hard to miss the FCC in Wilmington these days. There isn't a farmers market or outdoor festival that doesn't have a DTV information booth. The crowd at a local baseball game even got to chat with Martin, who in khaki shorts and a pale blue polo shirt answered questions at the FCC table.

Spreading The Word

Local television stations have been running a constant scroll about the conversion, and retail outlets have been holding occasional DTV information sessions. Martin says DTV posters will go up in every post office in the country next month touting the national transition to digital on Feb. 17, 2009. Yet Wilmington remains a critical piece of the DTV puzzle.

"One of the benefits of doing a test market is that we'll have some time between now and February to adjust," says Martin. "So if, for example, if there was an emergency — a natural disaster or a hurricane or a weather disaster — the local broadcasters could begin to broadcast that emergency information on that old analog signal."

Having this flat, coastal city make the switch in the thick of hurricane season is just one concern critics have voiced about Wilmington being the nation's only full-fledged test market. The FCC has held brief tests in other cities, including Las Vegas, Orlando and Portland, Ore. These lasted anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute.

Analog Viewers In Midwest

The watchdog group Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, says the FCC should test elsewhere.

"The most highly impacted parts of the country happen to be in the Midwest and more rural areas," says Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union. He says that's where there's a high concentration of analog viewers.

Kelsey applauds Wilmington for volunteering to go first, but says the FCC should focus on Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City and Fresno. He says more than 20 percent of those cities' residents will need to buy a converter box, a new TV or switch to satellite or cable to get a picture after the nationwide switch in February.

Surveys have indicated that those most affected by the digital transition can't afford to buy new digital TV sets.

"We're hoping that the message gets out to them loud and clear, and the people who are most affected by this are able to navigate this transition at the least cost to them," Kelsey says.

Catherine Welch reports for member station WHQR in Wilmington, N.C.

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