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Biggest Analog Cut-Off Test Shaping Up For Dec. 17

WDCA Washington conducted a soft analog shut-off test Wednesday morning, but it was just a precursor to what will be the largest analog shut-off test to date Dec. 17, according to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

State broadcaster associations have been instrumental in assembling stations in D.C. and 29 states to conduct the test all on the same day, something the FCC has pushed for.

Shermaze Ingram, NAB's senior director of media relations for the DTV transition, says more stations and markets are expected to sign on. Times and durations of the tests will vary, but all will be so-called soft tests. In those, stations simulate pulling the plug on analog signals with analog-only viewers getting a message about what they need to do to be ready for the real analog plug-pulling Feb. 17, 2009.

Boston TV stations conducted a marketwide soft analog test Tuesday (Dec. 9). According to WGBH Boston spokeswoman Lucy Sholley, the test went very well, with a designated phone bank getting a "huge" volume of calls that were still being tabulated at press time.

In a new twist on the tests, WGBH acted as the nexus of contact, with commercial stations conducting three cut-offs throughout the day, with viewers told to go to WGBH, which was airing a 1-800 number for DTV education and a daylong loop of This Old House hosts talking about the DTV transition, a special produced by PBS.

Sholley said WGBH got about 75 calls itself, but that most went to the phone bank, set up by the state broadcaster association there.

The soft analog tests both help viewers prepare and stations identify possible coverage-change issues. One of the problems that surfaced in the Wilmington, NC, early analog cut-off test was the difference in coverage areas from analog to digital, which would mean some analog customers would lose service whether they had a DTV-to-analog converter box or even a digital TV.

Jeanne Hopkins, VP of communications and government affairs, derfined the test's success as "reaching a lot of people who needed to take action." The station split its feed, with DTV viewers seeing regular programming and a message that they were DTV-ready and over-the-air analog customers getting the This Old House version of the digital makeover and the 1-800 number.

Asked if she would recommend that noncom stations participating in the Dec. 17 test provide a similar service, she said that she wouldn't want to tell them what will work for them. While she said she thought giving over the whole day to the DTV transition message was "the biggest public service" we could provide, she also pointed out that WGBH operates a second station in the market that did not split its feed, an option not open to many other noncom stations.