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.
Some Wilmington residents, who are used to being in the path of hurricanes, worried that their battery-powered TV sets, which provide alerts when the power goes out, would not work because converter boxes need electricity. So consumer groups worked with manufacturers to create a battery-powered converter, Martin said.
Gary McNair, vice president and general manager of Wilmington's NBC affiliate, said the storms would probably not affect plans to go all digital Monday, adding that the stations could turn the analog signals back on so viewers can get emergency alerts during a hurricane.
"But at least we won't be trying to get it done when the rest of the country is trying to do the same thing," he said.
Some stations are taking action before the Congress-mandated deadline. A CBS affiliate in Montgomery, Ala., for example, plans to shut off its analog signal in December to build the transmitters necessary to air digital programs on new channels.
For stations in northern climates, blizzards and icy conditions could make it difficult to make technical changes in the winter, and some stations may have to reposition equipment before they can air a digital signal. The FCC is allowing these stations to turn off analog signals as early as mid-November, Martin said.
The United States is not alone in the move to all-digital programming, but some countries are shutting off analog signals gradually.
In the United Kingdom, the digital transition is taking place over three years with 72 regional switches, partly because major equipment changes can be done only during the milder summer months. British broadcasters also have to coordinate the switch with neighboring countries to minimize disruption to viewers.
Carol Mattey, managing director of telecommunications regulatory consulting at Deloitte & Touche, said a gradual transition may not have been feasible in the United States under the policies and budget outlined by Congress. But an early test in Wilmington will provide some clues for other markets.
"It may not be an exact microcosm of what will happen in February, but the FCC will have a better understanding," she said.