At high noon on Sept. 8, TV stations in Wilmington, N.C., will pull the plug on full-power analog TV broadcasts, daring to go where no U.S. broadcasters have gone before.
Wilmington will become the first market in the nation to make the switch to digital TV, and the only one ready—and willing—to make the move early, according to the FCC officials who put out the call for a digital guinea pig.
And while question marks remain, the principal players, from broadcasters to the FCC, to the Bush administration's chief telecom advisers and right down to the mayor of Wilmington, appear confident that they, and the market, are ready for a relatively pain-free switch.
But for others, that very smoothness is cause for concern. No pain, no gain, they argue. A hassle-free switch to digital in Wilmington will not reveal the problems that could face the nation next February when analog shuts down and digital signals take over. So the question remains: Is this test really a test?
HOW PAIN-FREE COULD THE WILMINGTON 'TEST' BE?
For the Wilmington stations, Sept. 8 is not a simulated test, as has happened in several cities, but the real thing, with no going back. For the rest of the country, Congress has mandated that all full-power stations must pull the plug on analog by 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2009, with no grace period.
Since they are making the switch early, and voluntarily, the participating Wilmington stations involved—WWAY (ABC), WSFX-TV (Fox), WECT (NBC), WILM-LP (CBS) and W51CW (Trinity Broadcasting)—will still be allowed to air an analog signal for at least a few weeks to give a heads-up to viewers who may not have gotten the message. The market also has a bad-weather bailout plan that could delay the shutoff if Hurricane Gustav, or any other storm, is threatening the region.
The Wilmington stations conducted a one-minute simulated cutoff test two weeks ago. Gary McNair, general manager of NBC affiliate WECT, says the station got “zero” calls. Make that one. “I was told the [call center] called itself to make sure the phones were working,” he says. “I'd be completely surprised if this does not go well.” (For more on the Wilmington market, check out Market Eye, p. 14.)
Low-power stations don't have to pull the plug, but one of them is anyway, CBS affiliate WILM. That comes as no surprise. It is owned by Capitol Broadcasting, one of digital television's pioneer owners.
Unlike the full-power stations, which have been broadcasting in digital for years, WILM just got its digital signal up and running two weeks ago. But John Greene, WILM's VP of special projects, says now that this hurdle has been passed, “We're relaxed.”
But no one knows what will happen for sure. That's why finding an experimental test city was so important.
The FCC wanted an early start somewhere to help the commission gauge how many viewers might be storming the nation's capital with pitchforks and torches after the countrywide switch to digital in February. Only the stations in Wilmington stepped up to volunteer, with the exception of the noncommercial station in the market, WUNJ, which decided to remain in analog in case of emergency, like those hurricanes or anything else.
Indeed, the unpredictability of how the DTV test will go seems familiar to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. “The [DTV switch] is kind of like a hurricane coming through the area,” he says. “We prepare as well as we can for it and do everything by the book, and then when it hits, we'll find out how well prepared we were.”
'HIDING UNDER A ROCK' THE ONLY EXCUSE
The mayor is impressed at the effort the FCC, local broadcasters, the National Association of Broadcasters and others have put into educating the public about the switch, the coupons for converter boxes and who needs to get one.
“You'd have to be hiding under a rock” not to know about the analog-to-digital turnover, he says. “They have put billboards up; they have gone to every festival, talked to every official, gone to senior centers, the Kiwanis Club, the Key Club, the Rotary Club. The challenge is going to be doing that nationwide. It is going to be a challenge, but I think it is going to work out just fine.” An NAB survey released last week says 77% of Wilmington residents know the transition date.
And just to make sure everybody gets the message in Wilmington, the stations are repeating their “soft” analog shut-off test this week, and extending it from one minute to five.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the White House agency responsible for sending out $40 coupons to subsidize the purchase of converter boxes for households with analog sets, is encouraged by its data. “We are currently seeing very good participation by the Wilmington market with 60,000 coupons requested and 20,000 redeemed, and they are the top market for participation by households that rely on an antenna for television,” says spokesman Todd Sedmak.
The FCC has had boots on the ground early, including several visits from Chairman Kevin Martin and a team of three to five staffers in the market at any one time over the past four months.
David Donovan, who heads up the broadcasters' principal lobby for spectrum issues, the Association for Maximum Service Television, once worried that cable carriage might suffer when the digital signal switches on, but from what he's seen, “I think we should be OK. Coordination has gone along fine.” Dan Ullmer, chief engineer at WECT/WSFX, agrees. “I believe we are all on track,” he says.
WILMINGTON NOT RISKY ENOUGH?
Barry Goodstadt, senior VP of market research firm Centris, which will analyze what worked and what didn't in the coastal city of Wilmington, agrees with the chorus of constituencies believing there will be a relatively smooth transition. But that is not altogether a good thing.
“Wilmington is not a high-risk area in terms of reception. It is very flat,” he says, which means the test is a “softball”—or in this case, a beach ball—rather than one that would provide more useful information. “Sure, awareness is going to be very high. I'm sure of that. There is probably nobody there who hasn't heard about this,” he says.
Wilmington has a high penetration of cable and satellite viewing—about 93%. That left only about 10,000-15,000 viewers—depending on whom you ask—out of a market of 175,000 or so who relied only on analog over-the air broadcasting and would be most affected by the switch.
“I don't know if it is a real test of the real capability to deliver the signals everywhere,” Goodstadt says. “That is the question. They should have picked someplace that was more challenging, that has some hills and you could see the effects of terrain. Digital signals do operate differently than analog under variable terrain. And you haven't got that variability of terrain in a beach community.”
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who first suggested a test city, agrees that Wilmington has its limitations. “I regret that we weren't able to do full-scale tests in other markets. It would have been helpful to do similar tests in different physical environments and among different types of consumers,” he says.
But, he adds, there is plenty to be learned. “The most important thing that we can get out of the Wilmington test is a set of 'lessons learned' that can be applied to the nationwide transition next February,” he says. “Things like which messages worked and which didn't. Which consumers needed special outreach. Whether consumers bought converter boxes or made other choices. What kind of reception and installation problems consumers had. How many consumers were unprepared for the switch and why, and how quickly reception was restored. And what happened that no one expected.”
LOOKING FOR OTHER VOLUNTEERS
The famously soft-spoken Chairman Martin's voice rises at criticism of Wilmington as the only test city. Martin says the reason it was in a market with high multichannel penetration was that there were only a handful of markets that were ready, and Wilmington was the only one that stepped up.
Directing his comments to “any of the people who want to be critical about us doing Wilmington,” Martin says that “since the beginning, we have said that we will do any other market that wants to come forward and volunteer to switch early, and we haven't found any other market that is willing to.” But he made it clear that if any other market wants to volunteer, the FCC will help, though time is running short.
Researcher Goodstadt is all for that. “If they found some problems, they could begin to work on them,” he says. “But now, if they don't find any problems, they are not going to know until Feb. 18.”
Michael Malone contributed to this story.