N.C. city gets jump on all-digital TV

Times Staff Writer

With continued concerns that federal officials aren’t doing enough to prepare the public for the upcoming switch to all-digital broadcast television next year, Wilmington, N.C., has volunteered to be the government’s guinea pig.

The Federal Communications Commission plans to announce today that broadcasters in the coastal city of about 96,000 -- the nation’s 135th-largest media market -- will turn off their analog signals permanently on Sept. 8. That is about five months before the government-mandated switch-over in the rest of the country Feb. 18.

“We think it’s going to be a good thing for the community and it will pave the way for the rest of the country,” said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.


FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps had proposed a test market so officials could work out technical glitches and outreach problems with the digital transition, which will render older TVs that use antennas useless unless they’re outfitted with special signal converter boxes.

“It’s just nonsensical to think you can go into a transition like this and pull the lever one time for the entire country and not expect to have real consumer confusion,” Copps said Wednesday. “Even Broadway plays open on the road and you get the kinks out.”

There could be a lot of kinks. An estimated 15 million to 20 million U.S. homes receive only over-the-air TV, including many poor, elderly and minority households.

Public awareness is improving, but a December survey by Consumer Reports found that 36% of respondents were unaware of the transition, and nearly three-quarters of those who were aware had major misconceptions.

“If the FCC conducts this [test] in a smart and efficient way, they could learn a lot,” said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports.

The government is offering every home two $40 coupons to help TV owners buy digital converter boxes, which start at about $50. About 12.7 million coupons have been ordered so far, with 1 million redeemed, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a federal agency.

High-definition TVs and other newer sets can receive both analog and digital signals. TVs hooked up to satellite systems will be unaffected, as will most sets connected to cable or phone company systems.

But older TVs that get their signal via indoor “rabbit ears” or a rooftop antenna will no longer receive a picture once the switch-over occurs.

Lawmakers have been critical of efforts by the NTIA and the FCC to get the word out, although Congress has given the agencies only about $7.5 million to educate the public so far. With limited funding, the government is relying largely on voluntary efforts by broadcasters, cable companies and other organizations.