Safe, Not Sorry

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The Wilmington, N.C. early analog turnoff test has revealed what many had anticipated. All the education in the world cannot prevent a variety of problems when you are making the biggest change in the history of television.

That is why Congress should grant all broadcasters a four-week grace period after the nationwide Feb. 17 digital switch so they can continue analog broadcasts of DTV-switch information, just as the Wilmington stations did.

Currently, the law does not allow either broadcasters or the FCC that flexibility. That date was set in stone by legislators concluding that it was the only way to ensure the switch got made at all. We agree there's a need for a firm date. But if there is an overriding lesson to be learned from Wilmington, it is that Congress and the FCC should keep the analog safety switch on for a month, just in case.

There is good news from the first few days of the Wilmington test: The FCC and station managers concluded that virtually everyone in the market was aware that analog signals were being discontinued as of Sept. 8. The downside to that was that more than 1,200 people called the FCC hot line, and hundreds more called local stations, confused.

There were a variety of reasons. Human nature, for one. Some folks just don't budge. Some are technically challenged. Some didn't have all the information they needed. For instance, some people with DTV converter boxes hooked up correctly didn't know how to scan for DTV channels, or re-scan for channels that might have been added since they first hooked them up. Others did not hook them up until the last minute, unaware that they could or that they needed to.

That suggests that a bit more refining of the message is needed, to encourage folks not to wait until the last minute to hook the boxes up, and to emphasize the couple of button pushes it will take to get the new channels. But there were also issues with antenna positions and the fact that some viewers in outlying areas will lose their stations' signals when they go digital.

Those folks benefited from the Wilmington stations' ability to keep an analog signal going for emergency purposes and to use that signal to broadcast information steering viewers toward the FCC for help.

Take all the procrastinators, the elderly-adopters and technically un-savvy folks, add those to the antenna-challenged and the suddenly station-less fringe viewers, and multiply them by 211 markets—some with particularly challenging terrain and many analog viewers—and there is ample reason to take that lesson learned from Wilmington and apply it.

Wilmington viewers got the most intense, concentrated information campaign the FCC and others are likely to be able to provide. That being the case, it's doubly important that Congress still require the digital switch on Feb. 17, but allow stations to retain their analog signal for a short time—a month wouldn't hurt—before shutting them down for good. If the Wilmington test wasn't about learning and adapting, then it was for nothing.