Wilmington Becomes Model For Digital TV Switch

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Members of the Federal Communications Commission and city officials mark the switch to digital TV. i

Members of the Federal Communications Commission and city officials participate in a media event heralding the switch from analog to digital television signals in Wilmington, N.C., Sept. 8, 2008. hide caption

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Members of the Federal Communications Commission and city officials mark the switch to digital TV.

Members of the Federal Communications Commission and city officials participate in a media event heralding the switch from analog to digital television signals in Wilmington, N.C., Sept. 8, 2008.

Wilmington, N.C., has become the first major city to permanently switch TV broadcasts from analog to digital. Most of the country will make the transition to digital TV on Feb. 17.

A crowd of media, elected officials and curious residents packed Wilmington's City Hall on Monday to watch the mayor and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission flip a 7-foot mock switch.

The change from analog to digital jump-starts the FCC's campaign for the national transition in February. The commission is now focusing on cities with more than 15 percent of the population watching over-the-air television signals.

"So what we're going to try to do is take some of the lessons we learned here and actually go out onto the road into the markets that we identified that are most at risk, and we're going to try to have the same kind of events that we were doing here," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.

Over the past four months, the FCC has been at senior centers, retail outlets, festivals and farmers markets with booths touting the transition. The local airwaves were blanketed with public service announcements, but still people weren't ready.

College students were at local television stations trying to help confused viewers who started calling minutes after the switch at noon Monday.

Viewer Lewis Felton, who lives in the rural part of Wilmington's television market, dialed the local NBC affiliate for help.

"Oh man, this is a pain in the neck," he said.

Felton thought he was prepared. Months ago, he took advantage of the federally sponsored coupon program that allowed him to buy digital-to-analog converter boxes at a discount. He got the one in his bedroom hooked up properly, but the TV in his kitchen wasn't cooperating.

Felton had the converter box working until a few days ago, when he pushed what was clearly the wrong button on one of his remotes. Felton is one of those viewers the FCC is most worried about: He's older, he lives in a rural area, he doesn't have cable or satellite, and he watches over-the-air television on analog TVs. And hours after the switch, he was already discouraged.

"I just think they should have just let it alone; that's my thinking," he said.

To hear from viewers like Felton and to find out what went wrong, Elon University's Connie Book is drawing on reports from her students answering phones at the local TV stations. Book has spent the past 14 years researching and writing about digital television. She warns broadcasters across the county to pay attention to what's happening in Wilmington.

"If under the best conditions this is what you've got, I would especially watch it, because they've had special attention," she said.

Book said the key to a successful nationwide switch is for Wilmington broadcasters to give the rest of the nation an honest assessment of what happened in their market.

Catherine Welch reports from member station WHQR.

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

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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.

Correction Sept. 9, 2008

The original headline for this story incorrectly implied that Wilmington, N.C., was the first place in the country to make the switch from analog to digital TV. Cache County, Utah, made the switch on August 30. The story also incorrectly referred to "analog-to-digital converter boxes." The boxes are digital-to-analog converters.



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