Washington—Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin has picked Wilmington, N.C., as the test market to measure the community's level of preparation for the digital television transition scheduled to occur nationally on February 17, 2009, according to a media industry lobbyist familiar with the plan.
Martin—who has come under pressure from FCC Democrat Michael Copps to conduct such a local market test before the national switchover—could announce the Wilmington selection on Thursday, the lobbyist said.
An FCC spokesman was not immediately available to provide key details, such as when the test would occur and the kind of test that Martin is interested in conducting.
According to a cable industry source, Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, and a few small operators provide cable service in the Wilmington market.
On Feb. 17, 2009, all full-power TV stations are required to shut off their analog signals. Analog TV sets that rely exclusively on free over the air broadcasting will cease to function unless they are adapted to display digital signals.
The federal government plans to spend up to $1.5 billion to subsidize consumer acquisition of digital-to-analog converter boxes. The program allows each household to receive two $40 coupons to defray converter box costs. On Tuesday, the U.S. Commerce Department announced that 1 million coupons had been used since people began applying on Jan. 1.
In theory, cable and satellite TV homes won't be affected by the transition unless they have analog TV sets not connected to one of the pay TV services.
An FCC test in Wilmington would likely focus on the broadcast-only households and whether they have prepared their analog TV sets to translate digital signals or have purchased TV sets that include digital tuners.
Cable operators in the Wilmington market would need to be ready with headend equipment that can convert digital signals to analog to ensure that analog-only customers do not lose access to local broadcast signals.
Cable's preparation for the Wilmington test will be crucial if the test requires the market's TV stations to cease analog broadcasting rather than pause service for few hours or a few days.
According to the Center for Public Integrity's media ownership database, the Wilmington market has 10 licensed TV stations.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2003, the city of Wilmington, situated close to the Atlantic shoreline, has a population of 91,137.
According to Nielsen Media Research, Wilmington is the 135th largest TV market, with about 180,000 TV households, which suggests the TV market extends well beyond the city's official borders. Nielsen has cable and satellite TV providers serving 92.6% of area households, leaving just 7.4% relying exclusively on free TV.
Nationally, the broadcast-only audience ranges from 11% to 19% of households, depending on source of the data.