Wilmington DTV Switch: Sept. 8, 2008


Washington—Wilmington, N.C., will become the first market to switch to all-digital broadcasting on Sept.8, 2008, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said Wednesday.

“We'll be the first in the country,” Saffo said, adding that he was “honored” to have his city take the lead.

The test is slated to begin Monday Sept. 8, a week after Labor Day.

The Federal Communications Commission is planning to announce Wednesday afternoon that Wilmington will be selected as the TV transition test market, an FCC official said.

By law, all full-power TV stations need to terminate analog service on Feb. 17, 2009. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been coming under pressure to find a test market to determine the level of preparation in a typical market prior to the national switch over.

FCC Democrat Michael Copps has been nagging Martin for months to find a test market.

"This is very good news for the DTV transition.  Real-world experience is an extremely important step—although only one of many—that will help minimize consumer disruption next February.  Broadway shows open on the road to work out the kinks before opening night.  The DTV transition deserves no less," Copps said in a statement Wednesday night.

Saffo (pictured) said he is optimistic that his city will be ready to conduct a smooth transition soon after Labor Day.

“The FCC has assured me that they are going to come down here and do everything in their power ...to make this as smooth as possible,” Saffo said. “We look at the FCC as being a partner in this.”

According to Nielsen Media Research, Wilmington is the 135th largest TV market out of 210.

Saffo said he was well-aware that the eyes of the nation would be following DTV developments in his coastal city.

“It's a huge opportunity for Wilmington to pave the way for the rest of country,” Saffo said. “I am looking forward to working with [the FCC] and honored to be the first community in the country to do it.”

Nielsen has cable and satellite TV providers serving 92.6% of Wilmington 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.

According to the Center for Public Integrity's media ownership database, the Wilmington market has 10 licensed TV stations.

The city of Wilmington, situated close to the Atlantic shoreline, has a population of 91,137, according to U.S. Census Bureau data for 2003.

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.

Saffo said that ensuring broadcast-only viewers were not left behind was essential.

“Obviously we have some concerns,” Saffo said. “Our concern is at those folks who do not have a converter box are going to be given those converter boxes ...”

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.