By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
WILMINGTON, N.C., Sept. 8 -- Residents here became the first in the nation to experience the transition to digital television Monday as the largest TV stations in town shut off their analog signals.
The change took place at noon, when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin, flanked by broadcasters and other federal officials, flipped an eight-foot switch during a downtown ceremony to symbolize the new era of TV.
Wilmington broadcasters volunteered to make the switch to digital-only programming nearly five months ahead of the Feb. 17 deadline Congress set for the rest of the nation. The test is intended to give the FCC, as well as broadcasters and consumers in other markets, a better idea of how to ensure the official switch goes smoothly.
Congress mandated the switch to digital to free up valuable airwaves for wireless services. Television viewers using rabbit-ear or rooftop antennas to get signals will need to get a converter box or upgrade to a digital TV to keep watching. Cable and satellite TV subscribers should not notice a difference in their programs.
Monday night, FCC officials said they had received several hundred calls from local residents, some of whom were not aware that the switch had taken place and others who were having trouble hooking up converters. FCC staff members plan to remain in town for several days to help resolve any further problems residents have with setting up converter boxes and finding the right antennas.
"I'm sure we're still going to hear from people who weren't prepared," Martin said earlier. "But the bigger question is: What did we learn here that we can replicate around the country."
There was some concern last week that the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes would interfere with Wilmington's scheduled shift to digital, but the weather cooperated Monday.
Consumers steadily snapped up converter boxes in the past week, and last-minute shoppers stopped by local retailers Monday afternoon. Wal-Mart was sold out by Sunday evening.
Melissa Ainsworth swung by a RadioShack to pick up an antenna for the digital TV she bought in preparation of the switch. Unlike analog signals, digital transmissions either come in clearly or not at all. Viewers who were able to receive fuzzy or snowy analog transmissions may not be able to receive digital transmissions without more powerful antennas.
"We'll see how it works when I try to watch the news tonight," Ainsworth said.
Just how many people were unprepared for the switch may not be known for a few days, as the local analog signals were shut off while many people were at work or school. A team of students from Elon University, a private college about 200 miles northwest of Wilmington, camped out at local TV stations to field calls from viewers who found themselves without TV.
By mid-afternoon, the students had answered about 80 calls from viewers, most of whom were having trouble setting up converter boxes or hooking up antennas. Connie Book, assistant professor of communications at Elon, said she expected more calls to come in as prime-time shows began.
Wilmington is the 135th-largest television market in the United States, with about 180,000 television households across five counties, according to Nielsen. About 7 percent of those households rely on analog broadcasts, compared with a national average of about 13 percent.
The coastal city is home to hundreds of vacation houses and beach rentals, whose out-of-town owners may not realize the switch has occurred and may find a blank screen on their next visit, some of the students speculated.