Dress Rehearsal

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The road to the Feb. 17, 2009, analog shutoff is filled with potential technological land mines, most of which might be duds, but some of which may cause explosions of consumer anger and confusion.

So it's gratifying that five commercial stations in Wilmington, N.C., last week agreed to become the FCC's lab experiment for the digital conversion by shutting off their analog signal—permanently—on Sept. 8 at noon, five months before the official deadline. Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps first suggested that some market test the digital conversion, and received the support of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin. This plan is so logical it's hard for us to believe anybody in Washington was involved at all.

Now, whatever awful things that are going to happen when analog switches to digital all over the rest of the nation will at least be previewed in North Carolina so the rest of us can get prepared. Wilmington is one of the places where Capitol Broadcasting's Jim Goodmon owns a station. Goodmon is one of the earliest HD adopters, so the fact that the experiment is starting in one of his markets is probably not wholly coincidental.

“Mr. Chairman, we'll get it done,” Goodmon told Martin last week, and we're sure he's right. For one, Wilmington is a small market and very few viewers get their signals over the air, so the disruption may be quite minimal. But it's big enough that there probably will be some hassles, so there will be plenty to learn. (The public station in Wilmington will not make the switch, noting that it will occur in the midst of the hurricane season and the station feels a responsibility to be there for everybody, just in case. But if bad weather threatens, we're sure the other stations will have a Plan B.)

However, by switching in September, Wilmington gives other broadcasters nationwide time to find out what they don't know yet.

After the Wilmington announcement, 11 stations in Orlando, Fla., said they will simulate the analog shutoff at various, well-publicized times this summer. That's something like what KVBC Las Vegas did on May 2, for about 30 seconds during each of its newscasts. Viewers without digital sets or the necessary converter box saw simulated static on their old analogs, with a message telling them that after Feb. 17, 2009, those sets would receive nothing at all. Those with digital sets continued to see the newscast. Viewers loved the experiment, as reported exclusively in B&C. KVBC has received many phone calls from viewers hoping the station tries it again.

In fact, Nielsen told us that in conversations its representatives had with stations over delaying the February 2009 sweeps for a month (because of the confusion that could be caused by the transition), several stations asked about the ramifications of similar tests. And based on that, we have a feeling Wilmington, Orlando and Las Vegas are going to get some company.

Frankly, we love the idea that some segments of the television industry, sensing a potential problem, have tried to prevent it before it happens. Hats off to Las Vegas, Orlando and especially Wilmington. And, while you won't hear us say it too often, kudos to the FCC, too.


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