Wilmington Becomes Model For Digital TV Switch
Wilmington, N.C., has become the first major city to permanently switch TV broadcasts from analog to digital. Most of the country will make the transition to digital TV on Feb. 17.
A crowd of media, elected officials and curious residents packed Wilmington's City Hall on Monday to watch the mayor and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission flip a 7-foot mock switch.
The change from analog to digital jump-starts the FCC's campaign for the national transition in February. The commission is now focusing on cities with more than 15 percent of the population watching over-the-air television signals.
"So what we're going to try to do is take some of the lessons we learned here and actually go out onto the road into the markets that we identified that are most at risk, and we're going to try to have the same kind of events that we were doing here," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.
Over the past four months, the FCC has been at senior centers, retail outlets, festivals and farmers markets with booths touting the transition. The local airwaves were blanketed with public service announcements, but still people weren't ready.
College students were at local television stations trying to help confused viewers who started calling minutes after the switch at noon Monday.
Viewer Lewis Felton, who lives in the rural part of Wilmington's television market, dialed the local NBC affiliate for help.
"Oh man, this is a pain in the neck," he said.
Felton thought he was prepared. Months ago, he took advantage of the federally sponsored coupon program that allowed him to buy digital-to-analog converter boxes at a discount. He got the one in his bedroom hooked up properly, but the TV in his kitchen wasn't cooperating.
Felton had the converter box working until a few days ago, when he pushed what was clearly the wrong button on one of his remotes. Felton is one of those viewers the FCC is most worried about: He's older, he lives in a rural area, he doesn't have cable or satellite, and he watches over-the-air television on analog TVs. And hours after the switch, he was already discouraged.
"I just think they should have just let it alone; that's my thinking," he said.
To hear from viewers like Felton and to find out what went wrong, Elon University's Connie Book is drawing on reports from her students answering phones at the local TV stations. Book has spent the past 14 years researching and writing about digital television. She warns broadcasters across the county to pay attention to what's happening in Wilmington.
"If under the best conditions this is what you've got, I would especially watch it, because they've had special attention," she said.
Book said the key to a successful nationwide switch is for Wilmington broadcasters to give the rest of the nation an honest assessment of what happened in their market.
Catherine Welch reports from member station WHQR.
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