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Notes From the Digital Switchover

Our writer in Wilmington, N.C., continues his examination of the digital TV switchover being tested there.
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At noon today, Wilmington, N.C., Mayor Bill Saffo and FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin stood before a phalanx of TV crews and photographers, flicked a large mock-up of a wall switch from ANALOG to DIGITAL and made this city of 100,000 the first in the country to go to all-digital TV broadcasting. Here are a few notes and observations from the event.

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The national media were definitely paying attention to the Wilmington switchover, since the entire country will be making the same conversion in February. TheWashingtonPost, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News, C-SPAN and NBC Nightly News all had a presence here, but the most intriguing attendees were the TV crews from four Japanese networks, including NHK, Fuji, TV Asahi and Nippon. Seems the Japanese will be going all-digital in 2011 and are looking for guidelines from the American experience.

"Fewer people in Japan have cable than in America," said New York-based NHK producer Maki Hatae. "We want to see how (the conversion) goes, what obstacles people might encounter. Japan is still in the planning process."

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Also standing out in the crowd of bureaucrats and press were polo-shirted students from North Carolina's Elon University. A few were here taping the proceedings; others were assigned to local TV stations and the FCC call center to monitor any calls for help that might come in after analog TVs without converter boxes went blotto.

The group of 10 students and three faculty members was led by Connie Book, an associate dean of Elon University's School of Communications and a noted DTV expert. She was hoping to prove a theory of hers that the people who failed to convert from analog to digital would be "the very rich and the very poor. The very rich are non-subscribers to cable and satellite. They work a lot; they don't fool with it; they consider TV lowbrow. The very poor can't afford media, and they might live in isolated areas."

Five hours after the digital conversion, students from Elon University logged 81 calls at the Time Warner Cable call center about the switch. All but one knew the conversion was coming, and the problems were not with the switch but with the converter boxes. Most callers reported they were not receiving signals, probably because the converter box or DTV receiver had not been programmed properly. Students helped callers address their technical concerns, including turning antennas in the proper direction.

“TV stations need to be prepared as they make the switch for calls like these where viewers need someone to walk them through the correct installation steps for their converter boxes and tuning to a digital frequency,” Book said. Reported ages ranged from a caller in his upper 30s to residents in their mid-80s. Slightly more women had called then men. More than 80 percent of callers were white.

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The key theme at the event, which included speeches by Saffo, Martin, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters and the general manager of a local TV outlet, was how the partnership between local organizations and the FCC was key to the success of the switchover. Saffo praised the FCC's outreach efforts: "You folks were at blueberry festivals, hog callings, everywhere."

Noting Wilmington's community effort, which included everything from all-pervading advertising in local media to enlisting the local fire department to help the housebound and elderly purchase and install converter boxes, Martin noted that "community stakeholders must take a leadership role, which is why I'm so impressed with Wilmington."

Martin added that the Wilmington experience will help determine the technical implications of the national switch and what forms of consumer outreach are effective. He said the Wilmington area proved particularly important because of its location in hurricane country. The FCC had promised that if the conversion occurred while a storm was imminent, the switch would be delayed (a real issue, since Tropical Storm Hanna passed through here two days prior to the conversion). What this led to, he said, was a conversation with the manufacturers of conversion boxes, which resulted in production of converters for battery-operated TVs, highly useful in the case of power outages.

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Not everyone felt Wilmington was the best test market. Washington Post reporter Kim Hart mentioned there "has been criticism about doing the test here, because there are fewer people who rely on over-the-air broadcasting." In that respect, she's correct: Only 7 percent of the five-county market watch TV with rabbit ears, compared with 18 percent nationwide. But only eight markets nationwide have enough digital capacity for a test, and Wilmington was the only one to volunteer. Whether that invalidates the test only time will tell.

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A lot of work still needs to be done, particularly in terms of polling. The FCC, the NAB and a number of private organizations will be flooding the area with questions, asking locals everything from how they learned about the switch to whether or not they bought a new TV set instead of a converter box and why those who didn't prepare chose that option. A recent NAB survey found that 97 percent of local residents were aware of the changeover, so no one is expecting a tremendous amount of problems. Does that mean the test was an exercise in time-wasting bureaucrat nonsense? Professor Book doesn't think so.

"The community has owned this transition and has worked to make it successful," she said. "There is much to learn from Wilmington, because this is the best-case scenario. You have taken this by the horns and worked it for the past three months. It's the best-case scenario for consumers."

Or, as Mayor Saffo put it, incorporating a phrase that has been ubiquitous around these parts for months: "First in flight, first in digital — and we're doggone proud of it."

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