Tomorrow dawns five months earlier in Wilmington, N.C., than it will in the rest of America.
The 135th-largest Designated Market Area in the country, with 179,760 TV homes, 0.159% of the U.S. TV universe, spread over five counties, will transition to digital television signals at noon on Sept. 8.
The precursor to the federally mandated nationwide switch on Feb. 17 will take place after a two-hour ceremony attended by a crowd of federal, state, local and industry heavyweights, not to mention press, in the southern city’s Thalian Hall, which houses city council offices as well as a performing arts space.
It also follows nearly six months of fierce preparation that fast-forwarded large chunks of expenditures from the 2009 budgets to the 2008 budgets at the four local stations that agreed to participate in the test.
After last week’s regularly scheduled Tuesday morning conference call between executive and engineering representatives of the participating stations, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Broadcasters and the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, there was a quiet confidence, mixed with fervent hope, that all will go as scheduled.
TelevisionWeek has learned that all commercial TV stations in North Carolina will be asked to participate in a statewide test Sept. 17, turning off their analog signals for any one minute between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
“We are doing this because the digital transition is the most important television event in most of our lifetimes, and we want to make absolutely sure the citizens of North Carolina are prepared,” NCAB President Hank Price told TelevisionWeek.
In Wilmington, the efforts to prepare viewers in the DMA have included frequent public service announcements, numerous stories on local newscasts, lots of information prominently bannered on station Web sites and public appearances and speeches by executives and engineers from the stations. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and numerous other emissaries from the regulatory agency have visited.
What Chairman Martin may be uniquely equipped to do is assuage mistrust of the government with his answer to the first question he usually gets from the public: Why are you doing this?
He tells them it was Congress that legislated the switch. The goal was to take advantage of digital technology that frees up a lot of airwave bandwidth, which in turn can be auctioned off for almost $20 billion —and still leave signal space available for emergency responders nationwide.
The successive questions inevitably become more practical, dealing with how stations and individuals will cope with the change.
The Wilmington stations participating in the Sept. 8 switch are Capital Broadcasting’s CBS-affiliated WILM-TV; Raycom Media’s NBC-affiliated WECT-TV and Fox-affiliated WSFX-TV; and Morris Multimedia-owned WWAY-TV, the ABC affiliate. Three stations are not participating: W47CK, the UHF MyNetworkTV affiliate with a transmitter located near Wilmington; W51CW, an affiliate of the Trinity Broadcasting Network; and WUNJ-TV, the local outlet of the statewide public broadcasting system owned by the University of North Carolina.
Steve Volstad, the director of marketing and communications for UNC-TV, said the public broadcasters decided to pass on the Wilmington test because the system feeds emergency messages from the governor and hurricane season is in full swing. Many people rely on battery-powered televisions during hurricanes and other weather-related emergencies.
“We thought it would be important for at least one operating analog signal to remain working,” Mr. Volstad said.
Also, UNC-TV, which sends the same signal throughout the state, felt viewers not in the Wilmington DMA would be confused by switch-related messages that would not be germane to them for another few months.
Still building last week in Wilmington: the education and involvement of grassroots community groups lined up to help vulnerable viewers. The goal is to make all viewers understand and prepare for the day when the loss of the analog signal may render their old TV sets useless unless they have a converter box hooked up.
Government and private organizations are working to prevent unpleasant surprises on Sept. 8. Kip Godwin, a self-employed consultant and project manager with Kipling Godwin & Associates, last week was testing a toll-free phone line he had set up to help callers deal with the digital switch. He not yet publicized the 888 number via local media and posters in New Hanover County, which he described as “very rural,” with a population of some 55,000 people. About 17% of the homes in the county receive TV signals only over the air.
Once the toll-free line is fully operating, Mr. Godwin, a former county commissioner, will group calls geographically to maximize the efficiencies of travel by part-timers hired to solve switch-related problems in the 950-square-mile county.
They may visit people who have a converter box but need help hooking it up, or are of limited mobility and have neither a box nor the government-subsidized coupon that will knock $40 off the price of the box when they purchase it at a local retailer.
Mr. Godwin is hoping he can arrange to get temporary boxes to people so at least they are not without reception while his customer service teams work with the consumers to apply for coupons and then buy their boxes .
In Columbus County, where residents are 45 to 60 miles away from transmitters in Wilmington, many people watch CBS via the signal from WBTW in Florence, S.C., which is not making the DTV switch early.
That’s because Wilmington’s CBS affiliate was a low-power station until Aug. 17, when Capitol Broadcasting-owned WILM-TV went digital and dramatically expanded its signal’s footprint.
Mr. Godwin, an over-the-air light TV watcher, easily hooked up two converter boxes at his home (one to a home theater setup). He now even gets the digital-only NBC Weather Plus channel operated by WECT-TV, the Raycom Media-owned NBC affiliate in Wilmington.
WILM General Manager Constance Knox said her station is getting e-mails and calls from people suddenly able to receive WILM’s signal even slightly outside the Wilmington DMA.
Like her counterparts on the weekly Tuesday morning DTV conference call—which last week dealt with the not inconsiderable question of where to park the out-of-town press descending on Wilmington for Sept. 8—Ms. Knox has appeared and spoken at gatherings large and small.
At one such event, a man showed up carrying his old rabbit ears and a plastic grocery bag full of TV-related stuff.
“Help me,” he said.
Louis Sigalos, chief of the FCC’s Consumer Affairs & Outreach Division, pointed him in the direction of an engineer in the next room.
“Everyone who mattered needed to see that [man’s confusion],” Ms. Knox said. “That was perfect.”
Among the other things learned in Wilmington since the early test was announced by the FCC last spring: Go to where the people are instead of expecting them to come to a staged DTV expo; use language as straight-forward and everyday as possible; and use a variety of spots instead of one in order to keep people interested.
The NAB has produced a number of catchy spots that have supplemented well-worn PSAs first seen on the stations.
Shermaze Ingram, senior director of media relations for the NAB, said the value of the NAB’s largest-ever campaign in support of its broadcasting membership totals just over $1 billion, including the spots and a DTV transition road show that has logged more than 52,000 miles and is expected to hit more than 95,000 miles by February.
“What we’re engaged in is unprecedented,” she said.
On Nov. 10, the Monday after the presidential election, a 100-day countdown to the nationwide DTV switch will launch.
There have been variations on short local tests in markets such as Orlando, Fla., and Spokane, Wash., and Ms. Ingram expects many more soft tests before analog signals turn to snow for unprepared viewers across the country.
The NAB will be in Wilmington through the local switch to do some polling that will help refine its message and methods moving toward the national switch.
FCC Chairman Martin, a North Carolina native for whom preparation for the DTV switch has been of high priority, was on vacation last week but visited Wilmington to check in with the local broadcasters. He’ll be back in the North Carolina city Sept. 8 for the switch ceremony.
The FCC has had three or four people on the ground in the Wilmington market at all times over the last few months, spreading the word to fire departments, churches, senior citizen organizations and other grassroots groups, as well as visiting retailers. The regulatory agency has set up appearances and interviews for FCC commissioners and personnel,
While no other U.S. market can expect to get the blanket of attention and personal involvement from the FCC that Wilmington has received, the agency has identified more than 80 markets in which either 100,000 households or more then 15% of households rely solely on over-the-air signals.
The FCC will send commissioners to hold a town hall meeting, a workshop or a roundtable in each of those cities.
Learning what works—or doesn’t work—in Wilmington is important in moving forward in the rest of the country, Chairman Martin said.
The NAB will continue its DTV campaign nationally after Wilmington.
The NAB’s DTV Web page has logged 2,860,081 visitors accounting for 9,792,860 page views in the last year. As pertinent questions present themselves, the relevant information is incorporated into the FAQ page.
Ms. Ingram said that judging from her experience, including numerous appearances on radio call-in shows, it is clear that “almost everybody” is aware of the impending switch Feb. 17.
Lately, she said, there are a lot of questions about antennae and other specific technological matters.
“That’s a good sign people are starting to pay attention,” Ms. Ingram said.
A survey last week indicated 95% of the Wilmington residents are aware the switch is coming.
As for Mr. Martin, he’s not among the consumers who need to procure a converter box. He’s a cable subscriber whose bill runs more than $150 per month.
For more DTV news, visit TVWeek’s DTV Switch Navigator page.
Bracing for the DTV Switch in Wilmington, N.C.
Aug 31, 2008 • Post A Comment
Tomorrow dawns five months earlier in Wilmington, N.C., than it will in the rest of America.