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DTV Transition Test Run: The Wilmington Mayor Speaks

Democrat Bill Saffo, mayor of Wilmington, appears not to be overly exercised about being the guinea pig for the DTV transition coming Feb. 17, 2009. For one thing, he didn’t ask to be “phase one” of the DTV transition—the other phase being the rest of the country. And he isn’t up for re-election in November. He says the FCC and broadcasters have done a thorough job of preparing viewers, though he will only know if that is sufficient after the plug is pulled. Just call him optimistically apprehensive. Saffo talked with B&C as he counted down to Sept. 8.

Is Wilmington ready?

 We’re as ready as we can be. I think that we have done everything that we possibly can to get the word out. At noon on Sept. 8 there are going to be some folks who come and say, “We don’t have our TV’s hooked up.” But I think we have done the best that we can, and gotten all the information out that we can. I want to say we are 90% there in terms of people hooking up.

How would you rate the education efforts of the FCC and local broadcasters?

 The local broadcasters have done a tremendous job of getting the word out over the airwaves. The FCC has bent over backwards and has spent a lot of time and resources getting the word out. They contacted all the emergency management people, they contacted city and county officials. They have contacted every public information officer. They have gone to senior citizen centers, churches. They have worked with the local fire departments getting them trained to be able to hook up a converter boxes for some of the elderly or shut-ins or others who maybe didn’t see the announcement or have not made preparations so they can go to those firehouses and get help with those hook-ups.

 FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has come down several times. Commissioner [Michael] Copps has been in the area. We have had a lot of boots on the ground, and they have spent a lot of resources on this community.

Are you up for re-election?

 No, but remember, this is something that the FCC and the local broadcasters worked on together. I was notified about 48 hours before the announcement was made that this was going to happen in Wilmington.

So, what do you think the FCC has learned?

 I think the FCC has learned a lot about this transition and how it is going to affect the country.

 Speaking as the mayor I think it was a very smart thing for the FCC to have a trial market. I think they are learning things about the transition that they did not anticipate. Given what they have done here locally, I think that the enormity of it, to have the entire nation switched over in one day without having a series of possible test markets gradually building up to it, is going to be an enormous task for the FCC. Just like any other federal agency, they have limited resources. I think that as you get out into the rural areas that this is going to be a major transition.

Do you have any special concerns about the at-risk populations, the elderly and minorities?

 There are sections in our community that we have real concerns about. But, again, the FCC has tried to get to every organization, every church, every fire station, to get the word out.

What about the people who don’t get the message?

 When someone’s TV goes off, they will call the TV station. At that point, the stations are going to help them get a box or tell them where to go where someone can help them.

 And one of the things that came out of this preparation with the FCC is to have someone go to a particular place to get a box and be shown how to use it. People know where the local fire station is in their neighborhood. By using the fire station as a resource for these people to go to if they do lose their TV. So, we have a backup plan if we get these calls.

 That was something the FCC came to the city and asked us if we could use the fire stations and we said, “sure.” I think that is going to pay dividends for them. Another reason to use the fire stations is that they are located closer to where those people live, so they don’t have to drive all the way to town.

What will happen if the weather turns bad?

 If a hurricane is barreling down on the coast of North Carolina on Sept. 8 or a couple days before, the FCC and broadcasters have made a promise to us that they won’t cut off the analog signal for the rest of the hurricane season, which is through November. Obviously they will make the switch on Sept. 8, but they will have the capability that in the event of a hurricane in, say late September or October, they will be able to broadcast in analog. The reason the FCC let is do that is because so many people in this area have battery-powered analog TV sets so that if the power goes off, we can use our battery-powered TV sets to get information about what the heck is going on.

 In addition, the public TV station is continuing in analog and will make the switch with the rest of the nation in February.

What have you learned from preparing for the switch?

 I think going forward, taking this nationwide, they have to make sure that all the distributors like Best Buy and Circuit City have an ample amount of boxes ready and available.

 I also think the advantage the national switchover is going to have that we didn’t have is that schools can play a tremendous role in this. I think getting information out to the school kids to make sure when they get home they can ask their parents, “Are you ready for the big switch?”

 But broadcasters have been pounding the message. You’d have to be hiding under a rock if you haven’t seen it. They have put billboards up, they have gone to every festival, talked to every official, gone to senior centers, the Kiwanis club, the Key club, the Rotary club. The challenge is going to be doing that nationwide. It is going to be a challenge, but I think it is going to work out just fine.

So, it feels OK being a guinea pig?

 Apprehensive. Let me use that word. I’m always apprehensive. But I think that we have done everything that we can do. It’s like kind of like a hurricane coming through the area. That is the way I look at it as the mayor. We prepare as well as you can for it and do everything by the book and then when it hits, you’ll find out how well prepared we were. We’ll miss some people, but we are prepared to help those people afterwards.