Editorial: Heed Warning Signs in Digital Switch Test

Sep 14, 2008  •  Post A Comment

The Federal Communications Commission, television broadcasters and millions of U.S. households should thank goodness Feb. 17 doesn’t fall during hurricane season.
That’s because the results of the switch to digital-only TV signals that took place last week in Wilmington, N.C., raised troubling questions about how well prepared the rest of the country will be on that day, when analog broadcasting is set to go extinct.
Undoubtedly, when that happens, hundreds of thousands if not millions of the 14 million-odd households in the U.S. that rely on free, over-the-air broadcasts will lose their signals.
Beyond cutting off access to entertainment, loss of TV signals can put people who rely on TV for local news in jeopardy during natural disasters. And that scenario is not as far-fetched as it may sound.
The FCC and Wilmington’s local stations—WILM-TV, WECT-TV, WSFX-TV and WWAY-TV—deserve credit for pulling off a successful switch. An FCC phone bank received only 797 calls from the 179,760 television homes in the market. Of those calls, only 23 said they weren’t aware the switch was coming.
But there’s a difference between a show pony and a workhorse, and Wilmington most definitely was a show pony.
The FCC lavished attention on Wilmington that it can’t hope to replicate across the country. The agency (and this is a good thing) was present at 400 outreach events and handed out 85,000 publications in the Designated Market Area.
To duplicate the good results in Wilmington, the government should reasonably expect that it will need to repeat that kind of saturation marketing across the country. This week and next, congressional hearings will assess the status of the preparations for the switch.
Granted, a $1 billion public-awareness campaign will help, and the FCC plans to pay special attention to the 80 markets in the U.S. that have the highest concentration of over-the-air viewers. (Again, that’s good news.)
But the math out of Wilmington would make a skeptic wonder if that’s enough preparation. It has been reported that if one projects out to national numbers the percentage of TV viewers who experienced trouble during the switch, the FCC would have more than half a million calls for help on Feb. 17.
Of course, those 500,000 or so blacked-out viewers would be the folks who are least able to cope with technological changes and most likely to rely on good, old-fashioned TV for emergency information. We urge broadcasters, Congress, trade groups and local organizations to reassess whether their plans for the switch actually are adequate.


  1. Analog TV broadcasting is NOT set to go extinct Feb of next year. Only full power stations are affected. If a publication by professionals and for professionals can’t even get that simple fact right, what hope does great grandma (who still thinks color TV is pretty nifty) have of knowing what’s going on?

  2. CA? Which low-power TV station do you work for?
    Sure, you’re right…”only full power stations are affected”, but they’re the stations that 99% of the viewing public actually watch.
    How many people are watching LPTVers over the air? Those with programming of sufficient interest, or those with a network affiliation, are probably on cable and being watched that way by most viewers.

  3. Speaking of hurricane season. What good will the over the air 8vsb broadcast do. Mine goes out with a sprinkle. Too bad politics trumps engineering or we could have had COFDM which works. I guess there’s always AM radio or is it in the sites of the IP dwebs. We had a saying in the military, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”
    The changeover will be a disaster or a winfall depending on your affiliations. Either way of some the public will loose for a dubious gain.

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