News

Wilmington Goes First

9/12/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Wilmington, N.C., last week became the first U.S. city to complete the transition to digital television. By all accounts, the event was a smashing success.

But the question now is: What about Wilmington, Del., and the other 208 markets that don’t make the transition until Feb. 17, 2009?

Wilmington — a city hard by the Atlantic shore that nearly postponed the transition due to Tropical Storm Hanna — was an important test case that received tender loving care from the Federal Communications Commission, local TV stations, local officials, cable operators, satellite-TV providers and consumer-electronics stores. The FCC doesn’t have the resources to replicate that effort nationally.

“I think for the entire nation, it’s going to be a challenge because there was a lot of hands-on stuff here that’s not going to be able to be duplicated nationwide,” said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

The five-county Wilmington area has about 400,000 residents. About 1,300 people — less than one-half of 1% of the population — contacted the FCC with problems coping with the DTV switch within the first 48 hours. A few hundred contacted the local TV stations.

“The results of the digital television switch in Wilmington [show] that the collective efforts of the [FCC], the community and industry to inform viewers of the early transition in this local market were effective,” said Republican FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

FCC Democrat Michael Copps called for more test markets.

“We’d have a lot fatter playbook for next February if we could run tests like this in other markets with different kinds of terrain and topography and different demographics,” Copps said.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is running a $1.5 billion program to subsidize consumer acquisition of digital-to-analog converter boxes, which will extend the useful life of analog TV sets in an all-digital broadcasting environment.

Wilmington residents redeemed 28,000 coupons in a market with about 14,000 broadcast-only households. The program allows just two $40 coupons per household.

The FCC announced Wilmington as the first-in-the-nation test market in May. Over the next four months, the agency spearheaded a consumer awareness program that included 400 outreach events, ranging from town hall meetings to information sessions at local fairs and festivals.

“We’ve had FCC staff here on the ground almost the entire time since last May,” Martin said. With 2,000 employees with a range of professional skills, the FCC isn’t capable of deploying small teams to dozens of markets for months at a time.

Local TV stations aired a battery of public-service announcements, augmented by roadside billboards and notices posted by the U.S. Postal Service. That all served to raise awareness of the transition to 97% of Wilmington’s 187,000 households, almost guaranteeing a smooth switchover.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which has a $1 billion public education campaign underway along with the cable industry’s $200 million effort, hailed the results in Wilmington.

“Consumer education initiatives run by the television stations in Wilmington and the FCC were a resounding success, given that only a minimal number of viewers were blind-sided by the transition,” said NAB vice president of the digital television transition Jonathan Collegio.

In Wilmington, five local stations — the affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, plus a Trinity Broadcasting Network outlet — agreed to make the switch to digital broadcasting 162 days early. At a local ceremony, Martin and Saffo flipped an oversized light switch at noon, symbolically marking the occasion.

The stations, however, aren’t actually turning off their analog signals until Sept. 30. Instead, they substituted their programming with an informational message that included toll free numbers following the words: “If you are viewing this message, this television set has not yet been upgraded to digital.”

Because Wilmington went early, the local stations had the legal right to keep their analog signals running with the public-service announcement. Stations making transition on Feb. 17, 2009 won’t by law have that same flexibility.

Although the transition was widely known to Wilmington residents, they had some problems preparing for the Sept. 8 analog cutoff, based on calls received by the FCC and the stations.

Some consumers hadn’t ordered or received their converter coupons in time, while others had difficulty setting up their converters. Some consumers needed to adjust rooftop antennas to see the new digital signals. Another snafu was that some consumers thought they had to wait until after the analog cutoff to attach their new converter boxes.