Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Wilmington, NC going to all-digital TV five months early

Next Monday Wilmington, NC TV stations will shut off their old analog signals and broadcast only in digital, potentially leaving thousands of older televisions unusable. Wilmington is the first US city to switch to digital-only broadcasts and is doing it five months early as a test of the strategy the government and broadcasters have adopted for helping people who still rely on over-the-air, analog television move to the digital TV future.

Federal officials and broadcasters, concerned that the test could go badly, have blanketed the airwaves around Wilmington with public-service ads. The FCC has rotated staffers into the area to spread the word at weekend farmers markets and libraries.

"People have to have had their heads in the sand to not know this has been going on," said Gary McNair, general manager of WETC-TV, Wilmington's NBC affiliate. "Anytime there were a few people gathered, there was someone there with brochures."

So far, the top complaint has been about antennas, McNair said. Consumers without antennas that receive both UHF and VHF signals have been forced to buy new ones. Residents along the coast also have complained the battery-powered portable televisions they rely on during storms and hurricanes won't work now.

All of the efforts to educate Wilmington residents may result in just a few hiccups Monday. But there's also some doubt about how helpful the test may be in foreshadowing how prepared other communities will be, because no other areas will receive the kind of personal attention being showered on Wilmington.

"You can't say it's representative because we won't be doing that elsewhere. But it's all we've got, and we can look at what works and what doesn't work," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who pressed unsuccessfully for multiple tests around the US before Feb. 17, when the rest of the nation switches to digital-only television.

Anxiety about the transition will only grow over the next five months, particularly among lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who voted to move the US to digital-only television three years ago. When the switch happens, upwards of 15% of households that rely on free broadcasts will lose their television service unless they attach new digital converters boxes to their older televisions or subscribe to cable or satellite service.

Most households are eligible to receive two $40 government coupons to help pay for the converter boxes, although the number of coupons available is limited. Cable and satellite television subscribers don't need the boxes. Polls show that a majority of Americans know that the country is switching to digital-only television next year even if many still aren't exactly sure what they need to do about it. The Wilmington test was designed to show whether consumers could be educated on the transition and what they need to do to get ready.

It took some persuading to get Wilmington's broadcasters to agree to the early switch. Federal officials and broadcasters have left little to chance. For months, FCC staffers have flown in to take turns popping up at weekend farmers markets, town council meetings and senior centers, handing out pamphlets and answering questions.

Local broadcasters have run hundreds of ads, in addition to news segments on issues such as how to hook up one of the new converter boxes that will let consumers pick up new digital signals on older TVs.

The Consumer Electronics Association even donated 100 converter boxes to local nursing-home residents who aren't eligible for government coupons under current rules. Those rules will change this fall so that nursing home residents can receive coupons, although no date has been set yet.

Only 7% of households in Wilmington, or about 12,600 homes, rely on free television, far below many other communities.

The area is relatively flat, so residents haven't reported many problems receiving the digital signals, which can be obscured by buildings or mountainous terrain and leave viewers looking at black screens. Traditional TV signals may get faint and fuzzy when the signal isn't strong enough, but digital TV channels simply black out.

To help consumers make sure they're ready, Wilmington's four local network stations recently shut off their signals for one minute to test the readiness of local residents who rely on free over-the-air broadcast television. Other stations around the country have been doing similar tests. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

No comments: