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Pulling the Plug on TV as We Know It

Wilmington, N.C., is inundated in information as a test case for having all TV broadcasts in digital.
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On a recent Wednesday at the Poplar Grove farmers' market in Wilmington, N.C., one booth seemed out of place among the normal gaggle of produce and trinket vendors. On a collapsible table sat a battered television, set of rabbit ears and what looked like a miniature cable box. In front of them was a sign that stated "First In Flight, First In Digital: Be Prepared for a DTV Transition."

More on The Mediator blog: Notes From the Digital Switchover

This particular stand was manned not by a local grower but a staff member from the Federal Communications Commission. It was part of the massive education and outreach program the FCC is doing in this area that, on Sept. 8, will be the first city in the country to go to all-digital TV reception.

Wilmington and its five-county metro area boast a population of only about 400,000 and is the 135th largest TV market in the nation. But when the FCC asked for volunteer cities to act as a test market for the national digital rollover, which takes place on Feb. 17, 2009, this port town was the only one to volunteer. That, and the fact that Wilmington is one of a handful of cities where digital channels are already set, made the decision to use it as the national test an easy one.

The FCC says it is going all digital in order to free up part of the broadcast spectrum so it can be used for emergency services such as police, fire department and rescue squad broadcasts. It has also auctioned off some of the spectrum to companies that will provide advanced wireless services, such as broadband wireless. That auction, which attracted more than 1,200 bidders from as far away as Guam, added more than $19 billion to the U.S. Treasury.

In some respects, Wilmington is not the perfect place for the national test. Homes already hooked up to cable or satellite dishes will not have to make any adjustments, and this amounts to only 7 percent of TV homes in the area, as opposed to nearly 18 percent nationwide.

But some of the more rural areas here match the national average, meaning those who still catch The Tonight Show with rabbit ears will have to buy a digital converter box, which looks similar to a set-top cable box, or they will not get a signal of any kind after Sept. 8. This means a key part of the educational process not only involves telling consumers the change is coming, and what it means, but also letting rabbit ears customers know how to get a government coupon, available at, which allows them to buy a converter for as little as $10.

The outreach program has been a combined effort of the FCC, National Association of Broadcasters, local TV stations and Time Warner, which dominates the Wilmington cable market. The cable company is even trying to take advantage of the changeover by offering basic cable — essentially broadcast stations and a few public TV stations — for $7.95 a month for up to a year.

The local stations have been running public service announcements and crawls during programs for months and have set up informational booths in malls and other venues. The NAB has a DTV Trekker, a truck designed to look like a giant TV set, which shows up at public events to publicize the switch. And the FCC has been doing outreach at senior centers, trailer parks, malls and libraries, even a local Indian reservation. These places have been targeted because broadcast-only TV sets are concentrated among the elderly, the working poor, people in trailer parks, rural residents and non-English speakers. (The FCC has an informational sheet on the change that is available in 19 languages, including Khmer, Tagalog, Kurdish and Navajo.)

If the people who stopped by the FCC's booth at Poplar Grove are any indication, this total saturation policy seems to be working. Everyone knew the change was coming, but most didn't know why it was happening — nor did they care. Some were suspicious of the government's intentions — "When I first heard of it, I thought somebody was trying to make money off of it," said one local — and others still weren't sure if they needed to get a converter box or not.

Still, it seems the only people who haven't gotten the message are in a coma, in solitary at a maximum-security prison or have no access to TV, newspapers or human contact (a recent NAB survey found that 97 percent of households knew the transition was coming). But this begs the question: Wilmington's size makes it an easy-to-examine human petri dish. What happens when you go from fewer than half a million consumers to more than 300 million?

An FCC spokesman said the organization has already identified 81 "at risk" markets in which at least 15 percent of households are over-the-air only. Meanwhile, the FCC as of Aug. 27 reported that 56 percent of U.S. stations have told them that they've built the infrastructure for DTV broadcasts; only one station has so far reported it will go dark (for a few days) when the national changeover hits.

The Wilmington experience has taught the FCC that organizing a big media day involving meetings at senior centers and town halls, a visit by an FCC commissioner and local TV and radio interviews, can prove highly effective in getting the message out.

The FCC has also contracted with local fire stations to help the homebound buy and set up converter boxes and has worked with Meals On Wheels to ensure that senior citizens apply for the converter boxes.

Sharmaze Ingram of the NAB added that the national campaign, which is slowly but surely gearing up, has helped them with the Wilmington test. It has allowed all parties to identify and target specific demographic groups, as well as identify grassroots programs that will help spread the message.

"We are trying to make sure people in the harder to reach populations are being aggressively targeted," she said.

The NAB plans to do on-site polling at high traffic consumer areas on the day of the test to determine how things worked out. Questions asked will include whether homeowners managed to successfully upgrade, where they learned about the switch and how easy or difficult it was to install the converter box. There will also be a poll of local broadcasters, asking specific technical information, how their analog soft tests went off (there have been two so far) and whether or not they received viewer complaints.

As the date for the switch approaches, there is one more hurdle to overcome: Nearly one-quarter of households still do not know when the changeover will occur. So local stations are running PSAs and broadcasting "countdown" spots on a daily basis.

"The fact there are still a few days left, and there are people who have still not taken action, that gives us an extra push," Ingram said.

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