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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Wilmington, North Carolina will be the nation's lab rat for the changeover to digital television. This September, the city will switch signals from analog to digital months before the rest of the nation. The Federal Communications Commission is in charge of the changeover and it's working with people in Wilmington to try to explain it, as Catherine Welch of member station WHQR reports.

CATHERINE WELCH: The birthplace of broadcast legends David Brinkley and Charles Kuralt will add another page to its television history in September, and Lewis Felton is worried.

Hello, Mr. Felton.

Felton lives in a one-gas-station town deep in the rural fringe of Wilmington's television market.

Mr. LEWIS FELTON (Wilmington Resident): Good morning.

WELCH: Okay.

Mr. FELTON: I'm going to take it back tomorrow, to Wal-Mart.

WELCH: Oh, did you try hooking it up?

Mr. FELTON: It was hooked up and I was talking with the people and they're trying to make it work.

WELCH: Felton pads down the hall of his brick ranch house toward the kitchen. There is a TV set in just about every room, but the kitchen's his favorite place to watch the news. And it's where he has spent several days wrestling with his fairly new, though analog, color television set.

WELCH: So, you're hooking up your rabbit ears to your converter box?

Mr. FELTON: That's the antenna. See, now, I got an antenna on the roof so I didn't even bother with that one.

WELCH: But he may have to bother with his roof antenna. He's not sure, and it's not for a lack of trying. Felton's bought two converter boxes, combed through the directions, and he even made the nearly hour 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.

Unidentified male #1: And now, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the starting lineups for your Wilmington Sharks.

WELCH: It's hard to miss the FCC in Wilmington these days. There isn't a farmers market or an outdoor festival that doesn't have a DTV information booth. The crowd at a local baseball game even got to chat with the chairman. In khaki shorts and a pale blue polo shirt, he answered questions at the FCC table. When pressed about Lewis Felton's problems, he said he didn't have any answers.

Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): I don't know where he bought his converter box. He can go back to the retailers and they would help him, make sure he's setting it up accurately. We tried to work with him that night to make sure he's setting it up accurately, too. On the top of my head, I don't know what's going on.

WELCH: Local television stations have been running a constant scroll about the September 8th Wilmington 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 in February. Yet, Wilmington remains a critical piece of the DTV puzzle.

Mr. MARTIN: One of the benefits of doing a test market is that we'll have some time between now and February to try to adjust so that, for example, if there was an impending emergency, a natural disaster or whether a hurricane or a weather disaster, the local broadcasters could begin broadcasting out emergency information on that old analog signal.

WELCH: Having this flat, coastal city make the switch in the middle 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 markets. They'd last anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute. And they've been conducted in Las Vegas, Orlando, and Portland, Oregon. The watchdog group Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, says the FCC should test elsewhere.

Mr. JOEL KELSEY (Political Analyst, Consumers Union): The most highly impacted markets throughout the country happen to be in the Midwest and in more rural areas.

WELCH: That's where the organization's policy analyst Joel Kelsey says 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. 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 February nationwide switch.

Mr. KELSEY: We're hoping that the message gets out to them loud and clear and that the people that are most affected by this are able to navigate this transition at the least cost to them.

Mr. FELTON: 605-86...

WELCH: Lewis Felton got the message, but it hasn't done him much good.

Mr. FELTON: I'm Lewis Felton, and I was calling about this digital box. I set it up and I can't get it going.

WELCH: Felton is trying to get help from the converter box manufacturer. After dialing the wrong number at the FCC, he says he's just about ready to give up.

Mr. FELTON: I hate to throw them away, you know? But, I told them if it don't work, I'm going to go ahead and get, you know, a regular digital TV that's already built and ready, and just plug it in and go to town.

WELCH: Felton has a decent pension. But surveys have indicated that those most affected by the digital transition can't afford to buy new digital TV sets. And before he shells out more money, Lewis Felton will try a guy he knows who he says can get the converter box to work.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Wilmington, North Carolina.

BLOCK: And you can find tips on how to make your TV ready for the digital switchover at npr.org.

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