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Digital Television Guinea Pig Spotted

The digital television transition is set for February 2009, but one local market is jumping the gun next week — voluntarily.

Wilmington, N.C., television stations on Monday, Sept. 8, will permanently switch off their analog signals and go digital-only. The move is the Federal Communications Commission's first widespread live test in advance of the nationwide transition.

As trade publication Broadcasting & Cablereports: "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."

"The [DTV switch] is kind of like a hurricane coming through the area," Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo told B&C. "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."

Speaking of hurricanes, three storms -- Hanna, Ike, and Josephine -- are making their way across the Atlantic, with landfall possible in the Wilmington area. The test will be key to determine communication of emergency information to community members as those who rely on rabbit ears for their TV viewing tend to be elderly or poor, exactly whom would be most vulnerable during a natural disaster or other crisis.

The transition is expected to affect more than 15 percent of U.S. households, those who are not hooked up to cable or satellite but rely on free over-the-air broadcasts. Only 7 percent of Wilmington households, or roughly 12,600 homes, will be affected by the switch. Critics say a market closer to the U.S. average would provide a better test than Wilmington's high cable and satellite penetration and beach terrain; digital signals travel more erratically in areas that are more varied such as hillier or urban environments.

Our Lewis Beale, who lives in Wilmington, will take a closer look at his city's test-case status later this week.

Earlier Post: Nation Not Yet Tuning In Digital Television