FCC to Test Transition to Digital TV in N.C.

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

The switch to digital broadcasting, the biggest change for the television industry since color TV, will get a trial run in September in Wilmington, N.C.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin plans to announce today that the agency will run the test of the transition to digital to work out the kinks before most of the country's broadcasters stop transmitting traditional analog signals and upgrade to digital-only programming. Congress has mandated that broadcasters move to all-digital technology on Feb. 17, 2009.

The test in North Carolina, Martin's home state, is scheduled to take place Sept. 8, five months ahead of schedule. The Wilmington market -- the nation's 135th largest, according to Nielsen Media Research -- is one of the few markets in the country technically able to make the transition early, Martin said. The FCC will monitor the switch to digital programming at Wilmington's four commercial stations to get a better idea of the potential problems other markets can expect on a larger scale next year.

"The reason we're undergoing this is to make sure we've done everything right from a technical perspective," Martin said. "We're putting everything in place to make sure consumers are informed about the transition and prepared for it."

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps has been pushing for a test in a small market where broadcast stations' digital signals are already aired on the channels on which they will be found when the official digital transition occurs.

In a letter he sent to Martin in March, Copps said a test run would help to ensure the national shift goes more smoothly.

"Broadway shows open on the road to work out the kinks before opening night," he wrote. "The DTV transition deserves no less."

He said that other nations switching to digital technology, such as the United Kingdom, have allowed stations in various markets to make the switch on staggered schedules to minimize disruption for consumers.

Copps said yesterday he thinks Wilmington's early switch is a "positive step forward" in the overall preparations for the transition. He said he hopes additional, larger markets will also "step up to gain real-world experience" ahead of the official analog switch-off.

The FCC has been looking for other smaller markets to make the switch early, but many broadcasters have been unwilling to risk losing advertising dollars and angering viewers by speeding up the process.

After Feb. 17, viewers using analog TV sets that rely on antennas to receive over-the-air signals will need a converter box to keep watching their favorite shows. Television viewers can apply for a $40 coupon from the government to help offset the cost of the boxes. So far, about 1 million coupons have been redeemed, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency within the Commerce Department administering the coupon program.

Subscribers to cable and satellite services should not have to do anything to keep watching TV.

Many broadcasters already air digital programming. But many stations in larger cities are still putting in place new antennas and other equipment needed to switch entirely to digital.

Martin said FCC representatives will be in Wilmington before and after the switch to help educate consumers about the transition.

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