RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
With much fanfare, broadcasters in Wilmington, North Carolina, flipped off their analogue signals yesterday and turned their television market into the first in the country to broadcast only in digital. From member station WHQR, Catherine Welch reports.
CATHERINE WELCH: A crowd of media, elected officials, and curious residents packed Wilmington's City Hall to watch the mayor and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission flip a seven-foot mock switch.
Unidentified Man: Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one. It is time.
(Soundbite of applause)
WELCH: The changeover from analogue to digital jumpstarts the FCC's campaign for the national transition scheduled to take place February 17. The commission is now focusing on cities with more than 15 percent of the population watching over-the-air television signals. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, Federal Communications Commission): 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 those markets that we've identified that are most at risk, and we're going to try to have the same kind of events that we were doing here.
WELCH: 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, and still people weren't ready.
Unidentified Woman: OK, so we've moved the antennae, and you're still not getting anything?
WELCH: College students were at local television stations trying to help confused viewers who started calling minutes after yesterday's noon switch, viewers like Lewis Felton. From his home in the rural part of Wilmington's television market, he dialed the local NBC affiliate for help.
Mr. LEWIS FELTON (Resident, Wilmington, North Carolina): All right then. Bye now. Bye. She said to try scanning it one more time and pick up 601. Oh, man, this is a pain in the neck.
WELCH: Felton thought he was prepared. Months ago he took advantage of the federally sponsored coupon program that allowed him to buy digital converter boxes at a discount. He got the one in his bedroom hooked up properly, but the TV in his kitchen sounds like this.
(Soundbite of static)
WELCH: He 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 watches over-the-air television on analogue TVs. And hours after the switch, he's already discouraged.
Mr. FELTON: I just think they should have let it alone. That's my thinking.
WELCH: 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 local TV stations. Book has spent the last 14 years researching and writing about digital television. She warns broadcasters across the country to pay attention to what's happening in Wilmington.
Dr. CONNIE BOOK (Professor, School of Communications, Elon University; Author, "Digital Television: DTV and the Consumer"): If under the best conditions, this is what you've got, I wouldn't overlook it because they've had extra attention. I would especially watch it because they've had extra attention.
WELCH: Book says the key to a successful nationwide switch is for Wilmington broadcasters to give the rest of the nation an honest assessment of what happened here. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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