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FCC Details Wilmington DTV Test

Broadcasters and Federal Communications Commission members outlined the planned Wilmington, N.C., digital-TV market test Thursday, with Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting, conceding that there would be some temporary disruption in the market.

Goodmon said there was going to be disruption whether it was September 2008 (it is scheduled for Sept. 8) or February 2009, but the stations would get through it. He decried the hand-wringing emphasis over the viewers who would be lost in the switch, predicting that by 2011, over-the-air TV would have more viewers than it does today. “Mr. Chairman, we’ll get it done,” he promised FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

And as for an education campaign to make sure there are as few dislocated viewers as possible? "If you don't know that the transition is coming in Wilmington, you won't be breathing," Goodmon said.

Five full-power stations--affiliated with the Big Four networks and the Trinity Broadcasting Network--will pull the plug on analog broadcasts Sept. 8 at noon, almost six months before the government-mandated cutoff. They volunteered to do so after being approached by the FCC.

Martin said Wilmington was one of a handful of markets the FCC reached out to that could make the transition most easily because all of them had finished constructing their digital facilities and were operating at full power. He did not rule out other test markets, but he said no one else had volunteered yet.

He added that the date was picked in consultation with broadcasters and because they thought it provided enough time to educate the market about the switch, while leaving enough time afterward to cull data to help with the switch.

One station that did not like the timing was noncommercial WUNJ, which said the major reason was that it would be in the middle of hurricane season and it wanted to make sure it was able to provide emergency information if need be.

"We believe it is vitally important for viewers in a coastal area like the Wilmington market to continue to have access to these communications, including those who currently depend on the over-the-air analog-television service," said Steven Volstad, spokesman for UNC-TV, North Carolina's statewide public-TV network.

Martin said the FCC was sending staffers to the market "starting now" and through the transition to help with education and coordination.

The chairman gave a shout-out to commissioner Michael Copps, who came up with the idea of the test market. "I get the credit or the blame," he said, before adding his wholehearted endorsement.

Copps said he was proud of North Carolina, where he once lived and went to school, and was proud of "my" chairman, whom, he added, did not support the idea in a pro forma way but delivered results.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was the only voice at the press conference raising doubts about the plan. While he said it was "brave" of the North Carolina stations to be part of the test of an "uncoordinated" DTV transition, he wanted to know if Martin's plan to blanket every farmers’ market and blueberry festival in Wilmington with DTV information would be applied to the rest of the country.

If not, he wondered if the Wilmington test was really a test at all or would be a "staged dress rehearsal under false conditions." An ad hoc effort is no substitute for a coordinated plan, he said.

"First in flight, first in digital TV,” said Wilmington Mayor William Saffo, echoing the slogan emblazoned on posters in the FCC meeting room where the announcement was made. He added that he saw the test as "a "huge opportunity" for his city.

There were no cable or satellite representatives at the hearing, but Martin said the FCC had been in discussions with both. For example, cable operators will need to make sure they can convert digital signals to analog for their analog customers. The FCC mandated that after the Feb. 17, 2009, cutoff date for full-power analog stations, but Martin said he expected the agency to take whatever action it needed to see that the North Carolina stations were not penalized for making the switch before that date.

"The NCTA has previously indicated our support for the concept of a test market, and the cable industry has been working closely with broadcasters and other stakeholders to ensure that the February 2009 transition is seamless for television viewers," National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement responding to the announcement of the test market.

"We applaud commissioner Copps for proposing the concept of a market trial, and we look forward to working closely with the FCC so that local cable operators are able to help make the Wilmington test pilot -- and the full February 2009 broadcast transition -- a good experience for consumers," he added.

A cable-association source said the NCTA was not consulted in the test-market planning.

Registering his approval was House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.): “A digital-television test market may help to prevent consumer disruption by exposing any unforeseen wrinkles prior to the nationwide DTV transition next February," he said in a statement. “I commend the local broadcasters, cable, retailers and others who worked with the FCC and agreed to take part in this program and eagerly await the results next September.”

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.