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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Digital-TV Switch Is Tested

Some Customers In North Carolina Run Into Difficulties

Wilmington, N.C., became the first area in the U.S. to switch to digital-only television broadcasts -- at noon Monday, and it didn't take long before phones were ringing at local stations.

Broadcasters reported dozens of calls from local residents in the city and surrounding counties who either weren't prepared when traditional analog signals shut down, or couldn't get to work properly the set-top boxes designed to allow older TVs to receive digital signals.

Federal officials and broadcasters are closely watching how well Wilmington transitions to digital-only television broadcasts. Local TV stations and officials there volunteered to switch early as a test for the rest of the country, which is scheduled to switch on Feb. 17, 2009.

"The measure of success here in Wilmington is not what happens today or tomorrow here, but it's what we learn from it," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said in an interview. "If no one called today, that wouldn't necessarily mean it's a success."

By midafternoon, some 74 phone calls had come into the offices of sister stations WSFX-TV, a Fox affiliate, and WECT-TV, an NBC affiliate. Most were from people who needed help hooking up or programming their new set-top converter boxes.

"We knew going into this that this would happen. I'm sure we'll receive calls for the next few days," said Thom Postema, vice president and general manager of WSFX.

Fox is an affiliate of News Corp., which owns Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

At noon, local broadcasters and federal officials gathered around a fake, seven-foot-tall cardboard switch, which the mayor and Mr. Martin flipped to mark the end of analog TV signals in the area.

"We're first in flight, first in digital, and we're daggone proud of it," said mayor Bill Saffo at an event in downtown Wilmington earlier on Monday.

Andy Combs, general manager of WWAY-TV, the ABC affiliate, said his station began receiving calls at 8 a.m. but the bulk of its three dozen calls came in after noon, when the analog signals shut off. Despite that, Mr. Combs said, "I have to say, I think it's been a big success and I don't think that's going to change."

A toll-free number set up by the FCC for Wilmington residents had received about a hundred calls in the first few hours after local broadcasters shut off their analog signals. Some residents reported problems getting their new set-top converter boxes to work. Volunteers at the local fire department were enlisted to help residents hook up the devices.

Wilmington and its surrounding counties have about 14,000 households that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasting. That represents about 8% of local households, according to Nielsen Media Research. Nationally, some 13 million households rely on TV sets that receive free over-the-air broadcasts, Nielsen estimates.

The National Association of Broadcasters has been conducting awareness surveys among Wilmington residents for months. Last week, broadcasters reported that 97% of households in Wilmington knew about the transition.

Local broadcasters blanketed the airwaves with announcements about the impending transition and information about free government coupons designed to help pay for set-top boxes.

By: Amy Schatz and Fawn Johnson
Wall Street Journal; September 9, 2008