Learning the Lessons of the N.C. Test

Jan 18, 2009  •  Post A Comment

With the switch to all-digital television signals likely delayed by four months, TV stations around the country have more time to learn the lessons of Wilmington, N.C.
Wilmington stations were the first in the nation to transition away from analog signals back in September. Station managers now are urging their colleagues nationwide to use the delay to push audiences to prepare.
Collectively, Wilmington stations received about 1,700 viewer calls in the first week after their Sept. 8 transition, most related to minor installation snafus. But Wilmington was a special case, with broadcasting companies and the federal government working overtime to make sure the debut there didn’t turn into a public-relations disaster.
Bigger Challenges
The rest of the broadcasters around the country could confront bigger challenges, given the shortage of government coupons for converter boxes and uneven topographies in many markets that could hamper reception for some homes.
Nationwide, as in Wilmington, stations were well-prepared. The question mark hovered over audiences. Problems encountered in Wilmington may guide stations in other markets if they use the delay to prepare a new round of public-service announcements and more community outreach.
“The calls we received were people who didn’t have their converter boxes hooked up properly or they forgot to hit the button to scan for channels when they hooked it up,” said Andy Combs, general manager of Morris Multimedia-owned WWAY-TV in Wilmington. “You have to read the instructions first.”
WWAY also logged calls from viewers whose rabbit ears weren’t powerful enough to pick up the new digital signal. That could happen in other markets, Mr. Combs warned.
“That’s why I think the message to the consumer should be to hook up your converter box today, check your antenna today,” he said.
Signal positioning was somewhat overlooked in the pre-switch consumer education, said Thom Postema, general manager for Southeastern Media Holdings’ Fox affiliate WSFX-TV in Wilmington. He recommends other stations cover the need for consumers to direct the antenna properly in consumer education efforts.
Then there are stations that have their own anomalies. Wilmington’s Raycom-owned NBC affiliate WECT-TV had to move its transmitter about 40 miles around the time of the transition, causing added complications.
“We didn’t do as good a job of communicating that to people as we could,” said Gary McNair, station manager.
He suggests station personnel actually test free over-the-air digital themselves at home so they can become versed in the setup. Broadcasters also should work with other stations in the market, offer a digital helpline, and feel free to blame the government for the rash of messages they’ll have to run.
Most of the Wilmington stations relied on some students from nearby Elon University to take viewer calls. In Wilmington, about 12,000 viewers needed to be converted from analog to digital. In total, the stations received about 1,700 in the first week, Mr. Postema said.
Extra Preparations
Wilmington had the advantage of going first, though, which meant the stations performed special preparations, including weekly conference calls with each other, as well as the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters.
The possibility of a delay until June is likely to create additional work for stations.
Despite all the education, there will always be people who don’t pay attention, said Pete Putman, who runs the hi-def and TV set resource site HDTVExpert.com.
“People procrastinate. You could have a brass band come up and say you won $1 million and it won’t sink in until it happens,” he said.


  1. “Pete Putman, who runs the hi-def and TV set resource site HDTVExpert.com.”
    How joy! Can I advertise my station now too? Since I’m an assistant engineer, who deals with HDTV/DTV stuff from broadcast to production? I probably would have been a more credible source! If you don’t believe me, see Mary Robinson’s blogs.

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