Just as Storms Loom, N.C. Town To Switch Away From Analog TV

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008

WILMINGTON, N.C., Sept. 5 -- Residents here have spent nearly six months preparing for the biggest shift in television technology since color TV. At the request of the Federal Communications Commission, this coastal town will be the first market in the nation to shut off traditional analog signals to air only digital TV.

And it appears that it will happen at a most inconvenient time.

The stakes of the test rose even higher as a tropical storm barreled toward the town last night, with a hurricane not far behind. The analog signals some folks here rely on for weather updates won't exist come noon Monday.

The rest of the country must switch to digital by Feb. 17 in order to free up valuable airwaves for wireless services. Viewers who rely on rabbit-ear antennas will need converter boxes to continue watching TV. Viewers using a digital TV and those who subscribe to cable or satellite services should not be affected.

In Wilmington, where about 17 percent of viewers rely on over-the-air broadcasts, FCC staffers have been on hand to help broadcasters work through technological challenges; the National Association of Broadcasters has held consumer workshops throughout the area; and the Consumer Electronics Association has sent hundreds of converter boxes to nursing homes, where residents could have difficulties getting them on their own.

Letting local viewers know their analog-TV days are numbered has been the most challenging part of switching early, said Andy Combs, general manager of WWAY-TV, the ABC affiliate in Wilmington, which has been airing a digital signal alongside analog for six years.

"That's going to be the biggest issue for the whole country," he said.

The FCC announced Wilmington's trial run in May, hoping to get a better idea of any problems other markets can expect on a larger scale next year. Wilmington is one of eight markets in the country that are able to make the switch and the only one that volunteered for the test. No other U.S. market can expect the same amount of attention and help from the FCC and industry trade groups, and some critics, including Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, have expressed concern that Wilmington's demographics differ from larger markets where a higher percentage of viewers rely on analog signals.

Wilmington's terrain is also flat, lacking hills and mountains that could affect reception in other regions, said Barry Goodstadt, senior vice president of Centris, a market-research firm that is monitoring the test's results.

Still, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said the test in Wilmington will expose any big glitches in the transition process.

"The success of Wilmington is not what happens Monday -- it's what happens in February," Martin said. Broadcasters in several markets, including Orlando and Spokane, Wash., have been conducting short, simulated tests that display a message about the digital transition over analog signals. Through similar tests conducted in Wilmington, broadcasters discovered that the tests need to last for at least five minutes, rather than one minute, so consumers have time to check that every TV in their home is equipped to work after the transition.

Critics said making the switch at the height of hurricane season was risky because many people rely on televised newscasts for critical information, such as evacuation orders. A few smaller Wilmington stations, such as the local outlet for the state's public broadcasting system, opted to continue airing analog signals until February for public safety reasons.

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