Weathering The Digital Storm In Wilmington

Washington -- The city of Wilmington, N.C., will be the first place in the United States to find out whether its local TV stations can weather the transition to all-digital broadcasting.

The major commercial television stations in the five-county market near the Atlantic shoreline last week reached an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission and volunteered to turn off their analog signals at noon on Sept. 8, just as North Carolina enters its hurricane season.

The rest of the nation does not make the switch until Feb. 17, 2009, but FCC chairman Kevin Martin decided that finding an early test market could help the agency better prepare for the nationwide cutoff five months after Wilmington does on the second Monday in September.

“This experience is going to help us spot issues that we will need to address throughout the rest of the country sometime before next February,” Martin said at FCC headquarters last Thursday.

WWAY (ABC), WSFX-TV (FOX), WECT (NBC), WILM-LP (CBS) and W51CW (Trinity Broadcasting) are participating in the test. Public station UNC-TV is not.

Five of North Carolina’s 10 worst hurricanes have occurred in September, according to the Web site of UNC-TV, the state’s leading educational TV broadcaster, which declined to participate in the Wilmington test.

“The major reason is that the shutoff in Wilmington will occur during the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season,” said UNC-TV director of marketing communications Steven Volstad. “UNC-TV plans to continue broadcasting its analog signal into Wilmington until the February 2009 permanent shutoff date.”

Sept. 8 also is one week after Labor Day and one day after the first Sunday of the new National Football League season.

The effort to find a test market was spearheaded by FCC Democrat Michael Copps, who complained for months that a project as large as the cutover to all-digital broadcasting should not occur nationwide with a flip of the switch.

“I get the credit or the blame,” Copps said. “There are going to be problems that are going to crop up that we don’t know were there. There are always unintended consequences.”

The Wilmington DMA ranks 135th out of 210 in size, according to Nielsen. There are 167,810 television households, with 93% subscribing to cable or satellite television, according to Meredith Attwell Baker, acting U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information.

Over the next four months, a team from the FCC and local broadcasters will focus their energy on the 11,746 broadcast-only homes that are most vulnerable when the analog cutoff occurs in Wilmington. Analog TV sets can’t display digital signals without a converter box or an analog cable connection.

Martin and local TV executives on hand to make the announcement didn’t outline a plan for dealing with potentially thousands of people who may not prepare properly for the Sept. 8 cutoff.

“I know that there is this notion that we’ll have riots and stuff. If you don’t know that the transition is coming in Wilmington, then you won’t be breathing or anything,” said James Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, owner of the CBS affiliate in Wilmington.

Martin indicated that there will be 123 days to saturate the market with messages about the transition and that should be sufficient to avoid a large problem after the analog cutoff.

“Hopefully, we’re going to be making sure that they’re so aware of it that they are going to be calling and screaming ahead of time so that we will be able to try to address it before Sept. 9,” Martin said.

Time Warner Cable — the dominant pay TV provider in Wilmington — promised full cooperation with the test.

“Be assured, if you are a Time Warner Cable customer, the transition will be seamless for you. If your television is hooked up to cable, there is nothing you need to do before the Sept. 8 changeover,” said Alex Dudley, vice president of public relations for Time Warner Cable.

Dudley said the company would inform customers about the need to update analog TVs that are not attached to the cable system.

FCC Democrat Jonathan Adelstein indicated that a one-market test was too small and Wilmington could yield data that can’t really be transferred to markets with different demographics and terrain features.

“The real question becomes whether this is a real test case or staged dress rehearsal under false conditions,” Adelstein said. “We have to make sure that we’re learning the right lessons.”

Martin said finding a date was difficult.

“There’s going to be challenges in every part of country when the transition does come,” he said.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who is not up for re-election in November, said he expected a smooth transition in his city.

“I feel we’re going to be very successful with it. We are looking forward to working with the FCC and making this test case a success for the entire country,” said Saffo, who learned of the FCC’s plan just a few days before it was announced.