In Depth

FCC Confirms Wilmington as Digital Test Market

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin has formally selected Wilmington, N.C., as the test market for the digital transition.

“It will help us spot issues that we need to address throughout the country,” Mr. Martin told a Washington news conference today, surrounded by the mayor of Wilmington and local broadcasters.

The announcement confirms TVWeek’s report that Mr. Martin would select his home state for the dry run of the congressionally mandated switch.

Nielsen ranks the Wilmington market as the 135th largest of major-network affiliates. Beginning at noon on Sept. 8, WWAY-TV (ABC), WSFX-TV (Fox), WECT-TV (NBC), WILM-LP (CBS), and W51CW (Trinity Broadcasting) will broadcast only digital signals to their viewers in the five North Carolina counties that make up the market.

Wilmington PBS station WUNJ-TV will continue to broadcast in both analog and digital until the national transition, set for Feb. 17. The station is part of UNC-TV, the state’s public TV network; it said today that it was concerned that turning off its analog signal in the midst of hurricane season might deprive viewers of needed emergency information.

Mr. Martin said today that the FCC would have full-time staff in Wilmington through the transition to speak and attend events ranging from the riverfront festival to the blueberry festival. He said the agency would prepare public service announcements, outdoor billboards and posters promoting the transition.

Wilmington was chosen for the test run because all of its commercial stations have completed construction of their DTV channels and are operating at full post-transition power.

Jonathan Collegio, the National Association of Broadcasters' VP of the digital television transition, said in a statement: “The FCC-initiated experiment in Wilmington can shed light on a number of issues surrounding the national DTV transition in February 2009. The results must be objectively reviewed to determine how or whether the findings can be applied nationwide. NAB will be fully supportive of our local television broadcasters in this effort."

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who had been to England to watch its switchover, had pushed for a test before the national switch. Today he praised both the FCC and local broadcasters for voluntarily agreeing to it.

“It’s not risk-free. It’s not problem-free,” he said.

While Mr. Martin suggested Wilmington’s switch would offer valuable information, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said he was concerned that Wilmington would be more a showplace than a real test. The kind of effort the agency is putting into making sure Wilmington goes right is unlikely to be there when the rest of the country switches.

“The question is whether it is a real test or a staged dress rehearsal,” said Mr. Adelstein.

Broadcasters said they expected some disruption in advertising and viewership during the switch, but that it would have occurred anyway in February.

“Whether we do the transition in September or we do it in February, we are going to have some disruption to work through,” said Jim Goodmon, president-CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WILM-LP.

“If you don’t know the transition is coming in Wilmington, you won’t be breathing. But I don’t know how we are not going to have a disruption. We are going to have a disruption. We are going to make it as small as we can.”

Paul McTear, president-CEO of Raycom Media, which owns WECT-TV, said the high level of cable and satellite households in the market—93%—together with the number that already have requested discount coupons for converter boxes, meant few households would lose TV service. He predicted the biggest problem would be with second sets.

1:30 p.m.: Updated throughout