News

DTV Dividing Line

5/30/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Federal Communications Commission Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein don’t disagree on much. But with regard to the digital television transition trial in Wilmington, N.C., about three months away, the two have agreed to disagree.

Copps pushed a somewhat reluctant FCC chairman Kevin Martin to embrace the idea of a single test market. Martin, a Republican, finally did so a few weeks ago, concurring in Copps’ judgment that such a test could provide invaluable lessons applicable to the rest of the nation.

Last Tuesday, Copps and Martin traveled to Wilmington to stage a town-hall meeting with city elders and interested residents. Adelstein did not attend.

The DTV transition occurs nationwide on Feb. 17, 2009. The Wilmington transition, by agreement of the FCC and the major local commercial stations, is scheduled for noon on Sept. 8, 162 days early.

“The bottom line is that the more real-world experience we can get in the next six months, the better off we’ll be on February 17, 2009, when the rest of the nation hopefully goes digital,” Copps said in prepared remarks delivered at the Wilmington forum.

Adelstein has expressed a number of concerns about the Wilmington test. For instance, he’s questioned whether a coastal city like Wilmington is representative of other markets, especially interior zones with mountain ranges; and whether the test results will have any real meaning given that Wilmington is receiving special treatment from the FCC that no other market can expect.

“It’s important that we give Wilmington the extra resources it needs in order to prepare for the fact that they are going early,” Adelstein recently told reporters. “But the level we are talking about is going to, I think, undercut the legitimacy of the lessons that we learn from there because it won’t be a true test case.”

The FCC is sending four to six full-time employees to Wilmington. No other market is scheduled for the same kind of hands-on treatment. Copps has promised to visit Wilmington repeatedly.

According to Adelstein, success in Wilmington is destined to be a failure because intense FCC involvement won’t be the norm anywhere else. He compared the FCC’s role in Wilmington to the observer effect in physics.

“What’s that thing about the experimenter sometimes affects the experiment?” he said. “In this case, the experimenter is going to upset the validity of the results of the experiment if we over-prepared and forced too many resources in.”

The DTV transition is a one-time, flip-of-the-switch event in which all full-power TV stations are required by law to turn off their analog transmitters at 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 17. From that point forward, TV stations are to transmit only digital signals.

In Wilmington, WWAY (ABC), WSFX-TV (Fox), WECT (NBC), WILM-LP (CBS) and W51CW (Trinity Broadcasting) are participating in the Sept. 8 test. Public broadcaster UNC-TV has declined to participate.

At a minimum, Capitol Hill lawmakers and FCC regulators are concerned about the millions of analog TV sets that won’t work after the transition unless connected to cable, satellite TV or a digital-to-analog converter box. The federal government has set aside $1.5 billion to subsidize consumer purchases of converter boxes at retail.

The Wilmington market is 135 out of 210 in size, according to Nielsen. There are 167,810 television households, with 93% subscribing to cable or satellite television. That leaves about 12,000 broadcast-only homes that will need at least one converter box or a new digital TV set.

Copps has said a successful transition involves a lot more than whether every home has prepared to receive digital signals. Consumers need to know, he said, that low-power TV stations won’t convert to digital on Sept. 8 or Feb. 17, requiring consumers to keep an old analog set on hand or acquire a converter box that can pass through analog signals.

Other problems identified by Copps: Will consumers with indoor rabbit ears antennas need new rooftop antennas to receive digital signals? Will consumers be confused if they need to re-scan their TV sets, which are picking up stations that have just moved into new channel assignments?

“Your TV set, if it’s got a channel that’s moving its home, has got to be re-scanned,” Copps said. “So I hope folks didn’t throw out their owner’s manual. I probably did throw mine out.”

Adelstein agreed with Copps that so much remains unknown about how consumers are going to cope with the transition. But without a national strategy to deal with problems in every local market, Wilmington’s lessons can’t be transferred to other regions, he said.

“The other thing we’re not planning for is the confusion that comes from people who did everything right and it still doesn’t work. And there’s going to be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of those people,” Adelstein said. “Our call centers are going to be overwhelmed. We are facing a potential meltdown by people who are confused and don’t know what to do.”

Sitting hard by the Atlantic Coast, Wilmington has been hit by major hurricanes in the past few decades. The height of the season comes in September. UNC-TV is sitting out the Wilmington test just for that reason.

At last Tuesday’s forum, local residents asked about the availability of battery-powered digital TV sets in case of a hurricane-induced power outage.

“The weather thing is the big thing for me,” Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo told a WECT reporter after the town hall meeting. “There are a lot of questions out there with regard to hurricanes.”