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Digital TV Switch Goes Live in Wilmington

Sep 8, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Wilmington, N.C., is officially a digital TV market—and the revolution was televised.
An oversized ceremonial switch was flipped at noon Monday and, just like clockwork, the flat-screen TV displaying the unenhanced analog signal of Fox affiliate WSFX-TV went black.
Within seconds, an explanation of why there was no longer any programming on the screen began scrolling.
On the other three flat-screens—one with a digital tuner, one as delivered by cable and/or satellite and the third equipped with an analog-to-digital converter box—it was TV business as usual.
Within minutes, local station executives were hearing from their stations that callers already were registering their dismay and confusion at losing their analog signal.
A cluster of federal, local, state and local officials, as well as broadcasters, in unison counted down the last 10 seconds of the analog era in Wilmington.
The collective expulsion of breath from the crowd that had filled the high-ceilinged room in Thalian Hall may have been one of relief. Or it may have been because after two hours in the crowded hall—once a library in which a young future broadcast legend named David Brinkley reportedly read every book—the folks were about to swoon in the heat and humidity and finally could doff their jackets, if not their ties.
It was a red-letter day for the Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Broadcasters and the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters. But now begins the process of finding out how many people who rely on free, over-the-air television had seen their TV lifelines go dead.
There will be much collection and collation of data from the callers, both to make sure their TV service is restored as quickly as possible and to help the rest of the country know what to expect and how to prepare.
Monday was a milestone after six months of speeches, news stories, posters and grassroots outreach explaining the switch to viewers in the 135th-largest Designated Market Area in the country. Wilmington volunteered to be propelled into the next broadcasting era five months before the rest of the United States makes the federally mandated switch on Feb. 17.
“I do wish more communities had stepped up,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said.
One of the themes of the comments Monday was how no revolution of this scope and intricacy can be accomplished without public and private partnerships of the sort employed in Wilmington. The actual switchover is the easiest part of making the switch; the tough nut is getting the word to consumers so they are prepared with as little burden as possible.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said local firefighters will be making house calls to help hook up converter boxes—and check batteries in smoke alarms while they’re there.
“Congress ought to take a page” from this one, he said, adding: “We’re daggone proud of it.”
The local broadcasters have quelled their natural competitive instincts to work closely together since May to prepare for this switch. Hank Price, the Hearst-Argyle Television executive and president of the NCAB, said the transition is “the single most important thing that will happen in our lifetime.”
Gary McNair, VP and general manager of NBC-affiliated WECT-TV, said he preferred being called a “digital pioneer” to the other labels that have been applied to the local broadcasters for whom he was speaking Monday: lab rats and guinea pigs.
He said Wilmington stations and their owners had been pleased to pave the way to the digital transition, but confessed to an early moment in which there had been the recognition, “‘Hey, we’re the first to actually take something away from people.’”
Some 70% of the 197,760 TV homes are cabled, but the run-up to the transition proved a boon to Time Warner Cable, which saw an estimated 500 new customers, said a spokeswoman. That doesn’t count the cable customers who had a second set hooked up rather than go the converter-box route.
For at least one local woman who became a connected cable subscriber just the day before the switch, the transition provided an excuse to get something she’d wanted for a long time. Asked why she didn’t consider subscribing to a satellite service or getting a converter box, she said with a smile: “Oh, I’ve been wanting cable.”
“It’s been good for us,” Time Warner Cable Regional VP Jack Stanley said. “We do have a solution and it is transparent.”
At least one local retailer, a Wal Mart, sold out of converter boxes Friday, according to several people attending the ceremony Monday.
There were indications that as residents had stocked up for Hurricane Hanna, which blew through Wilmington as a tropical storm Friday, they thought: Why not pick up a converter box now, too?
“It’s good news in some ways, because they had a run on them, because they had a good supply. But at the same time, today will be a hard day to solve your problems,” said Dr. Connie Book, who was fielding a team of Elon University students Monday to monitor the traffic at stores, as well as at stations’ switchboards to see who was calling and why, for an independent study.
Wade Hargrove, the high-powered attorney who represents the NCAB, among other broadcast entities, said there will be two headlines to come out of the Wilmington switch.
One will be who didn’t get the message, in spite of the massive publicity blitz, or if they did, why they failed to act and how broadcasters and agencies reach them in preparation for the national switch.
The other, Mr. Hargrove said, is that the brush with Hanna “is a great lesson in and of itself, because the ability to continue to broadcast in analog in the event of a public safety hazard in Wilmington is not an option in the rest of the country. It’s not unlikely that there will be adverse weather in the Northeast, the Midwest, the Rockies, so Congress may wish to consider whether it would be appropriate to allow stations, in the event, for 30 days, or whatever, to make sure that those who didn’t get the message have an opportunity to correct their oversight or make adequate provisions.”
Meredith Baker, acting assistant secretary of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration, shared data Monday that helped sketch an arc of action on the part of consumers who want to retain their free, over-the-air TV viewing.
Ms. Baker’s agency administers the program to disburse coupons worth $40 off the price of converter boxes.
Through the eve of the Wilmington switch, she said, more than 69,000 coupons have been requested from more than 37,500 households in the DMA. About 47% of those requests had come from households that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts. More than 28,000 coupons have been redeemed in Wilmington through Sunday. Coupon requests had skyrocketed by more than 300% after the announcement in May of the Wilmington test, vs. approximately 94% across the country.
Data gleaned by the Elon students from 81 calls to local outlets in the five hours after the switch was flipped indicated it wasn’t lack of awareness that had created problems for those who lost their signals, but rather the way their converter boxes or new television sets did not seem to work.
In fact, only one of the 81 callers admitted to being unaware of the switch.
That touched on another theme heard frequently in Wilmington, where a reader had suggested the local newspaper print the names of the oblivious so they could be asked what rock they’d been living under.
(3 p.m.: Updated throughout)

56 Comments

  1. I’m wondering if many people only saw the general notice about Feb. 2009 and didn’t know they would get hit nearly 6 months early…

  2. Not in this case; I read an article yesterday that the FCC has spent so much time and money getting the word out in Wilmington that it wouldn’t be representative of what to expect in other areas.

  3. I still think that the switch is not quite complete. We are still waiting to see people who get the signals, but not well enough to keep the stations “live” signal at 1005, without dropping out, due to multipath, tunneling, bad WX, or just poor penetration of 8-vsb modulation. these all can happen WITHIN 1 MILE of the towers. I KNOW that TV stations will hear more about not getting free TV 100% of the time, while it freezes on them, for one of the above reasons.
    I think that if the FCC went for CODFM modulation, as most TV stations use for thier own local beaming, as well as EU stations, multipath and poor penetration wouldn’t be an issue, like the less efficient 8-vsb Modulation. Sinclaire Broadcasting noted that in 1999 and FCC through out that complaint in 2001. Now Sinclaire can laugh at the FCC, as they will soon realize this switch is not going to be as smooth …and will vary in consistency from market to market, location to location.
    Note that the switch is far from over, even for this mini market/DMA. There will be complaints, as stated above. Stations just hadn’t reported them, or have not seen the people who don’t get DTV in well, as of yet.
    There’s a reason there’s not a single “portable” DTV. Soon the world will definitely know why!
    I tried to let some know (both on youtube and here), but was clearly ignored. Now who’s going to laugh at the FCC, when peeps sue the FCC for taking their info away, even for a short time, as they lose life-saving information, that was so readily available to them before September 8, 2008 and then February 17, 2009.

  4. I wish all you whiners would just shut up and accept the inevitable. False claims of ‘weak signals’ etc, do no good to anybody. Analogue is history, and like the crystal set, then the tube radio, need to be consigned to it’s well-deserved fate.
    As for me, personally, I live some distance from the TV transmitters, yes I find the digital signals much more reliable, plus looking so much better. No echoes; no red-bleeding, no ‘sparklies’ just a solid high def or “plain digital” picture, rain or shine.
    You “model T” tv fans better get with the program, because it’s here, and it’s here to stay!

  5. To EmmGee-Ohio:
    You obviously haven’t been following any of the 8VSB tests over the past decade.
    The Sinclair/8VSB dispute is long over, and Sinclair has signed on to the program. They’re more concerned with cable retransmission agreements these days.
    8VSB reception technology is now up to generation 5. In demonstrations nearly three years ago, Zenith showed successful reception under such intense multipath conditions that analog reception was impossible.
    The current wave of DTV converter boxes are using Gen 5.5 or Gen 6 adaptive equalizers. They outperform my Samsung DTB-H260F set-top box from October 2006, and that’s a Gen 5 design.
    At the past two NAB shows, Samsung and LG/Harris both showed successful mobile VSB reception demos from vehicles traveling as fast as 70 mph along the Las Vegas Strip and under the convention center on Desert Inn Road. These are specialized versions of VSB (A-VSB and MPH).
    Still, the conventional 8VSB receiver also used in these tests did very well, particularly when the vehicle was stopped – even when behind buildings.
    Do your homework. 8VSB is not the “wing and a prayer” DTV system plagued with problems back in 1998. It actually works, and works well.

  6. The problems with digital only “end” in the 8VSB transmission. The fact is, everything from the TV camera to the TV screen is more problematic with digital, and if your standards are “TV that works all the time,” digital TV works about as well as a modern computer. It’s really spiffy when it’s running, and a pain in the neck the rest of the time.

  7. Actually, COFDM-based DVB-T has plenty of problems with indoor reception. There’s a whole page dedicated to it: http://www.megalithia.com/elect/aerialsite/index.html
    As the previous poster said, do your homework. ATSC works very well from indoors these days in most situations.

  8. Even in some of the smaller markets, people have had *years* to get ready for digital-only. Sure, converter boxes are much cheaper now, but the digital signals have been there for quite a while.
    That’s why I hate the term “digital switch”. It sounds like the digital signals are being turned on the day the analog’s shut off.
    We’re as ready as we’re ever going to be for analog shut off. Like I’ve said here before, other stations in other markets (WGFL, Gainesville, FL) have shut their analog off already. Some people were surprised, but no one died from loss of TV.

  9. HDTVPETE:
    There are a few problems with what you are telling me. Let me outline them.
    1) As for the tests, I, if anyone know that tests can easily be skewed. As a media person, I know this oh too well. I have seen some places that are showing that 8-vsb is not performing well. I, personally can also vouch for this. I have a YouTube channel called “emmgeeimages” that has plenty of Toledo, Ohio based DTV reception issues. I also have been in contact with 100% of Toledo, Ohio TV engineers. The same exact thing is being said, “we’ll get calls on February 17th, where somebody with boxes can get us.” That’s a quote from WTVG’s Jim Dussel.
    2) As for the Sinclaire broadcasting issue on DTV, it’s still a fact that they made a complaint, the FCC threw that complaint away, while not improving THE SIGNAL, but the boxes. The fact that it was an issue is very relevant, even though you think its over. If you don’t work there, you cannot say it’s over.
    3) As for the testing, nobody has come forth to mention what methods they have used to come to the conclusions they have come to. Are they facing east, west? Away or near the towers? Are they on the top of bottom floor of a high-rise? Are the antennae on the inside or outside walls? What antenna was used? Nobody had publicly published this type of information.
    4) The 5th generation of technology isn’t perfect. I am a great example. I have a 2007 converter (RCA’s DRC 8335 converter/vcr/dvd recorder). It should filter out the 16 db of noise and multipath. However, if you look up “bad DTV signal” and “DTV issues” on YouTube, you will see what I mean, by the 5trh generation not working. I’m not the only one saying this. Other people have also commented on the fact they do not get DTV either. This cannot be ignored.
    5) According to my ex boss and another Toledo TV engineer, they use CODFM for all Digital transmissions, such as tower cams, traffic cams, etc. neither one of these TV engineers rely on 8-vsb. It’s seen as unreliable, within the industry, itself too.
    6) There’s evidence of “CENTRIS” doing research on the “DTV gap,” various civil rights groups blasting the technology, due to poor penetration through walls, even DTV engineers not using that particular technology. There’s got to be something if TV engineers do not use that 8-vsb technology, for remote use.
    7) It’s a good pitch. However, I have to suspect that HDPete is a DTV equipment salesperson. He appears to not be the average user. Yes, DTV mat work for him, but I don’t see the caveats as to what makes it work, his environmental surroundings, RF propagation prospects or not, his particular location, antenna and height, booster or not, what converter he’s using, etc. Let’s not mention WX components and Tropospheric ducting.
    Maybe I just missed a few things. Maybe I’m not educated enough to talk on these issues. Maybe that’s not even the case. The latter of the 3 makes more sense.

  10. EmmGee:
    Your eight-bay bow-tie antenna is far too much for close-in DTV signals.
    You are overloading the front-end amplifier of your tuner, causing distortion byproducts that interfere with the DTV signal. This is a problem with any and all types of Digital signals, whether they are 8VSB, COFDM, or whatever…radio, TV, or even Digital phones!
    If you need the huge antenna to minimize multi-path, then keep it. But, get an in-line attenuator and crank down the signal levels.

  11. I have embraced digital broadcast television. It is exciting event in my mind.
    Being in a small market, it is satisfying to know that there are other television programming choices due to the sub-channels employed by most television stations, even if it is 24/7 news and weather. I am a Weather Channel and CNN junkie so I know what it is like when I am someplace that I can’t get information, like at my friend’s house who only gets 4 local full power stations and 2 low power. He is hoping for that kind of sub-channel programming on at least one of our local digital stations.
    But the fact remains, and it is indisputable, that there are a lot of people who can recieve 5 or six analog television stations, both VHF and UHF, who hook up the converter box between the antenna and the TV find that they can get only one or two stations, if that many.
    All across the country this is happening. It is real. And yes, it is true, no one had died from the lack of television. Yet. I fear for those in tornado ally in rural mid-western states. I am apprehensive myself with the loss of being able to see the radar images on my 5″ B&W battery powered emergency television during tropical storms and hurricanes like Hurricane Humberto which sprang up over night last year. Although, it seems, I might have found a solution to that problem, even though it entails the erection of a dedicated emergency antenna and the purchase of another converter box, the purchase a battery pack to power it, and the purchase of another medium gain antenna! I am looking at probably $100 minimum to run an $18 tv that works just fine this year, but won’t next year. This may be an option for me, but for a lot of people, this will be out of their reach financially.
    And those that live in apartments and communities with homeowners associations are getting the runaround about erecting antennas even if it is mandated by the FCC that they have the right to do so.
    These are problems that will last way past the transition date.
    Yes, in more ways than I can count, digital is way better than analog ever could be. But on the other side of that token, in some ways, analog is better too.

  12. Max:
    I have tried all things, Omni directionals, actual RCA Rabbit ears, Zenith antenna’s, terk55, you name it… tyhe result was always the same. I even made a homemade single and double “coathanger” antenna.
    Point being, nothing worked 13 miles from the TX sites, good or bad WX. This is exactly what “antennaweb.org” suggested I originally get.
    You can name everything to try, but chances are, I have tried them. I also understand from out local “state television channel” (Corp for Public Broadcasting/our tax funded), that several people have complained about the same exact issues. Therefore, I KNOW its not just me. Then I posted stuff on youtube, got my own situation coming back to me from other’s. So I know its everywhere.
    By the way, if you think I’m overloading, I also tried those … can;’t think of the name… but the diminish the gain… no luck there either. I just cannot get my local DTV to stay in, for the life of me… just as other’s cannot either.
    A problem not addressed by a single TV station or governmental official. Yes I have tried “marcy Kaptur’s office (D-Toledo), various Eningeers, wrote CBS2 in NYC, which they corrected a 70 mile away person’s DTV 1 week later… but did nothing on this story, etc.
    I have tried all, but nothing worked. My friend said he saw the same EXACT THING on Buckeye Cable… so did WTVG’s Christina Williams on 7/14/08, latenight.
    The problems are there, not just with me.

  13. If your landlord won’t let you (or, you and the other tenants) put up an outside antenna, maybe it’s time to suggest some other options to him…maybe you guys could spend your free time drinking, playing loud music, spitting out the windows (toward his car, etc.) 😉
    I don’t understand the mentality of some landlords and HOAs. If they don’t want you to watch TV in their buildings, then say so in the “For Rent” ads, so we can go elsewhere.

  14. Hi Max,
    I don’t understand the mentality of the landlords or home owner associations either, but then they can tell you that the shade of white on your trim is not the right color either. They don’t want those “eyesores” in their backyard and will do anything possible to stop them from being erected.
    Until someone is ready to put some meat into bucking these knuckleheads, they will continue to flaunt their “hall monitor” status.
    The major fault, I believe, is the that the FCC rules state you have a right to put up an antenna, but then give ever so much wiggle room that there is always a hole for them to step through to put up roadblocks.

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