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Wilmington Pulls Plug on Analog

5/09/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Wilmington, N.C., near the home of the Wright Brothers famous flight, will be the launching pad for the DTV transition.

In a hastily assembled press conference last week—two of the five commissioners were out of town and couldn't make it—FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, flanked by local broadcasters, a couple of FCC commissioners and the head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, announced that the affiliates for the Big Four networks, plus a Trinity Broadcasting station, had volunteered to pull the plug on analog Sept. 8, 2008. This was intended to help the commission gauge the impact of the nationwide switch-over coming Feb. 17, 2009, at 11:59 p.m.

Making the switch are WWAY (ABC), WDFX (Fox), WECT (NBC), WILM-LP (CBS), and W51CW, the last two low-powers that technically don't have to make the switch at all. Not making the switch was noncommercial WUNJ, which decided to be the analog designated driver for emergency information, given that this will take place during hurricane season in a coastal North Carolina town.

North Carolina is Martin's home state and the former home of FCC Commissioner Michael Copps; it was Copps' idea to schedule a trial run. But Martin said the market was picked because all the participating stations had already constructed digital facilities and were operating at full power—and they also volunteered. Martin had said he did not think the FCC had the power to force anyone to switch early.

Also arguing for the market was that multichannel video penetration is about 93%. That means there will be fewer disaffected analog customers, though enough to collect data from the "guinea pigs," as Wilmington Mayor William Saffo phrased it jokingly.

In addition, one of the stations is owned by Capitol Broadcasting, whose president, Jim Goodmon, has been a digital pioneer and evangelist for the promise of the new medium.

Conceding there would be some disruption of the market, Goodmon said last week there was going to be disruption whether it was September 2008 or February 2009, but he's not worried. He decried the hand-wringing emphasis on viewers who would be lost in the switch, predicting that by 2011, over-the-air TV would have more viewers than it does today.

Martin said the Sept. 8 date was picked so that there would be enough time to educate viewers about the coming early switch.

"If you don't know that the transition is coming in Wilmington, you won't be breathing," Goodmon joked.

But beginning the tests in September leaves enough time for the FCC to cull the data and apply it to the big switch next February. It also allows broadcasters to get ready for the November sweeps. The FCC said it would have staffers in the market "starting now," to help coordinate and educate.

The test is clearly the FCC's show. In contrast to the launch of the DTV converter box program earlier this year, neither David Rehr, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, nor Kyle McSlarrow, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association chief, were in attendance.

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