FCC Makes (Tentative) Plans for Wilmington Ceremony

FCC chairman Kevin Martin to flip switch to DTV if hurricanes Hanna, Ike, Josephine allow it.

At press time, the Federal Communications Commission was making tentative plans for a symbolic Wilmington, N.C., switch-throwing event -- by native North Carolinian and FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

But it was also keeping a weather-eye out for tropical storm Hanna and hurricanes Ike and Josephine lined up in the Atlantic. That’s in case the early analog cutoff by Wilmington TV stations scheduled for Sept. 8 has to be postponed.

Wilmington is located in New Hanover County and, according to an e-mail from the county's public information officer, New Hanover's emergency-management director was scheduled to hold a briefing at 2 p.m. Thursday to "ask local officials to consider protective actions" regarding Hanna. Wilmington was put under a hurricane watch as of 8 a.m. Thursday.

Five TV stations in Wilmington, including the Big Four affiliates, are switching to DTV-only broadcasting early to help the FCC gauge the impact of the national switch to digital Feb. 17, 2009.

Hanna is now a tropical storm, and it is expected to top out at a category-1 hurricane (currently 65-mile-per-hour winds, according to the National Hurricane Center), with Wilmington in the target area of predicted landfall.

But if the storm passed through Saturday at its current projected strength, the analog-cutoff might not necessarily be postponed, according to a general manager of one of the stations making the switch.

But the FCC is also monitoring Hurricane Ike, a dangerous category-4 hurricane (140-mph winds) that could also threaten the East Coast by the middle of next week. With folks having to make plans for the Monday event, a call on whether to delay the Sept. 8 switch could come as soon as Thursday.

The National Hurricane Center said it was not clear where Ike was heading but called it an extremely dangerous storm. Broadcasters will not pull the plug on analog if lives are at risk, Gary McNair, GM of WECT-TV Wilmington, told B&C Wednesday.

As of press time, the tentative plans, according to FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin, were to have Martin throw the symbolic "switch" at noon Monday during an event at the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts in Wilmington. Martin told B&C he hoped to be able to throw that switch.

Also expected to be in attendance were FCC Commissioner Michael Copps;  NTIA Acting Assistant Secretary Meredith Baker  (NTIA oversees DTV converter box program); Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo,      NAB President David Rehr, and WECT TV VP and GM Gary McNair.