Each week, at farmers’ markets in the five counties in and around Wilmington, N.C., booths proffering information have taken their place among the stands filled with tomatoes, fresh flowers and jarred pickles.
The booths, such as one last Wednesday at the Farmers Market at Poplar Grove Plantation in the city of Wilmington, are staffed by Federal Communications Commission employees who have come to the area to get information out to local consumers that they live in the test market for an early conversion to digital television signals, scheduled for Sept. 8.
It’s a dry run for the nationwide conversion to digital TV from analog broadcasts that will take place across the country on Feb. 17, 2009.
A sign over the FCC Conversion Booth at the Poplar Grove event read, in part, “First in Flight, First in Digital,” a riff on North Carolina’s license plate tagline. The FCC aides are equipped with TVs, purchased up for $20 or less at local thrift stores, and other equipment: one FCC staffer said she brings an antenna from home.
They’ve worked out their own catchy phrases, such as “Get the coupon, get the box, get the picture,” to sum up the actions they want consumers to take.
The FCC has assigned one outreach aide to each of the counties affected by the digital switch by the broadcasters in Wilmington— Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover, Bladen and Pender. They hit the ground in mid-May, with the goal of attending every town hall, flea market and festival in the region to pass out one-sheets on the transition and demonstrate how to hook up converters in order to still receive off-the-air signals following the transition.
They work to dispel misunderstandings — no, you don’t have to wait until Sept. 8; a box hooked up now will receive digital signals today — and point out the expiration date on the converter coupons so people won’t lose their value by waiting too long to buy the hardware.
“You’d have to live under a rock to not know” about the digital transition, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said. “The message is everywhere.”
As in other markets, the broadcasters and cable operators (including Time Warner Cable in the city and Charter Communications in the county) are using their channels to warn viewers about the transition.
Even UNC-TV, the statewide PBS station that will not make the shift on Sept. 8, is running an informational spot on DTV in every primetime break, said assistant general manager and director of engineering Carl Davis.
The FCC employees say they average five or six meetings a day, per county. Their first step upon launching the informational effort was to set up meetings with officials in the affected jurisdictions to give them answers to questions that may be directed to government agencies. Then they set out to find creative ways to talk to the hardest-to-reach segments of the population, such as seniors.
Multichannel News interviewed two of these outreach workers, but the FCC media office requested they not be quoted by name because they are not officials who normally talk to the press.
To reach the homebound, the FCC outreach aides briefed Meals on Wheels representatives about the DTV transition and how to set up a converter box. That way, a trusted, familiar presence in a senior’s home would be able to share the information, rather than a stranger from a government agency.
The approach varies from county to county. Columbus County is a particular focus because as much as 17% of residents there rely on over-air broadcast television, according to FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin.
The initial approach in Columbus was supplying information to the school districts to send home with children before school let out for the summer.
Other Columbus locales were targeted, ranging from the Watermelon Festival in rural Fair Bluff to seven senior centers and eight libraries in the county.
Bookmobiles are also good resources, likened by one aide to “Johnny Appleseeds” that spread the information deeper into the county.
Though locals laud the information outreach, some worry about “message fatigue,” questioning whether the guidance is so widespread that Wilmington residents might end up tuning it our rather than acting on it.
Others acknowledge there’s merit to the tonnage approach. “I guess it’s the way marketing works: you really have to do it” over and over, UNC-TV’s Davis said.
Added a Poplar Grove patron: “These people who are not tech people thought it was overkill on the second day. But for John Q. Public, it’s not.”
Some locals have expressed some frustration about the transition’s arrival in the middle of an economic slowdown. The FCC emissaries point out that the law mandating the transition was passed by Congress in 2005.
Some financially hard-hit families — the ones who are churning out of cable and satellite due to economic pressures — actually seem pleasantly surprised that once they hook up the new hardware, they find 27 multiplex digital offerings already available.
They include a kids-targeted channel and a crafts channel from UNC-TV that have already gained new fans, according to the FCC representatives.
Another source of complaints has been that consumers who don’t have home mail delivery have trouble getting coupons. FCC representatives tell such consumers to call (888) DTV-2009 to learn about alternative delivery options.
And even though the FCC has provided many sources of information for consumers, there is concern among local officials that some people who have always just bought TVs and hooked them up to rabbit ears might need help adapting to the new technology.
“The message has been consistent, but there are people out there who can’t program a remote; have never bothered with a cable box,” Hanover County public information officer Mark Boyer said. “There will be seniors out there who will be very confused.”
Then there’s sheer inertia. “What are the top 10 reasons for procrastination? I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Boyer joked. “It won’t surprise me at all at noon on Sept. 8 if you hear people going, 'Where’s my TV?’”
At least consumers won’t have to worry about losing a vital source of news and information should there be a hurricane. The FCC has agreed to suspend the transition in Wilmington if the area is threatened by a storm during the time period.
With the intense information effort under way, some local officials question whether Wilmington will be an accurate bellwether for the national transition next February.
“The FCC has five full-time people here, one in every county,” UNC-TV’s Davis said. “They’re not going to do this level of investment in 200-plus DMAs across the country.”
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer based in Wilmington, N.C.