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FCC Seeks to Calm Nerves over Digital TV

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The FCC moved today to address anxieties about the coming transition to digital TV. It announced that the city of Wilmington, North Carolina will become the testing ground for coming changes in the way millions of Americans get their TV signals.

In less than a year, February 2009, regular over-the-air TV signals are supposed to be phased out, and the FCC wants to make sure the process goes smoothly.

Joining us is Yuki Noguchi, NPR's new business correspondent.

Yuki, welcome.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Thank you.

BLOCK: And why Wilmington? How did they get to be the guinea pig here?

NOGUCHI: Well, the idea here is to test things out on a smaller scale, and the FCC chose Wilmington because it's ready, willing, and it's a pretty safe bet. It's a small city. It's got four broadcast stations, and all those stations have their digital transmitters already in place. Also, a large majority of its population gets its TV via cable or satellite, so they don't need to do anything to get the new digital television signals. There are still, of course, a couple thousand people who get their over-the-air signals, and those are the ones who are going to be affected.

BLOCK: How did this idea of running a test market essentially in Wilmington come about in the first place?

NOGUCHI: Well, the idea of dipping a toe in the water using a small test market actually comes from Britain, which is also set to go through its own digital transition in a couple years. And one of the FCC commissioners went over to witness such a test and decided let's bring this over here. In Wilmington the switch will happen on September 8th, which is less than six months before the rest of the country.

BLOCK: And what are the pitfalls? What could go wrong?

NOGUCHI: Well, Wilmington, the worst case scenario isn't that bad. They could discover that the signals are hard to reach in the more remote areas, but when you blow it up to the bigger national scale, things get more complicated. You've got a bigger population, thousands of stations, lots of local cooperation that's necessary, and the single most vexing issue is consumer education. It's just not that easy to install one of these converters. You can apply for a government coupon to offset the cost, but then you have to choose one of these boxes and you have to, you know, move your TV, plug it in into the back of the thing, and that's a many step process; it's complex for a lot of people.

BLOCK: There has been a pretty active public education campaign in advance of this transition.

NOGUCHI: Absolutely. The government and the electronics industry have spent millions. They're doing educational events at local libraries, for example, and running public service ads. They're trying to reach some 20 million or so households that rely exclusively on their old analog sets. Still, you know, come February 18th next year, many consumers could turn on their TVs and just see snow. The other tough thing about this, of course, is that the population most affected are the ones that are also hardest to reach, like the elderly and non-English speaking communities.

BLOCK: Yuki, a lot of people in those 20 million households that you just mentioned are going to be thinking, why, why do we have to go to all this trouble?

NOGUCHI: Well, the government decided a few years back that it needed to free up some of this broadcast spectrum. Cell phones and other wireless devices are booming now, and using digital is just more efficient. Stations can broadcast more channels with better picture quality and sound quality and use, at the same time, fewer airwaves. And with the airwaves that are left over, you can make room for new wireless technology like super-fast access in your cell phone.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Yuki Noguchi, thank you so much.

NOGUCHI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
Yuki Noguchi
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.