While the rest of the country will transition to digital TV in February 2009, Wilmington, NC, will make the switch early, on Sept. 8 this year, the Federal Communications Commission announced last Thursday. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps suggested a test market in March, and Martin commended Wilmington area broadcasters for stepping up.

"This experience will help us to spot issues that we need to address elsewhere in the country before next February," he said in a statement.

Wilmington, population about 100,000, is a port on the Cape Fear River in southeastern North Carolina. It was chosen because its commercial stations have already completed construction of their DTV channels and are operating at full post-transition power. It’s also a small market, with only about 7 percent of its viewers needing to transition.

"We were the smallest television market in the North Carolina area, 135th in the nation, and 93 percent of our viewers already have some sort of digital tuners or digital TVs," said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo in a C-SPAN interview.

The NCTA has wanted a test market before the full transition in February 2009, NCTA President/CEO Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement.

"We applaud Commissioner Copps for proposing the concept of a market trial, and we look forward to working closely with the FCC so that local cable operators are able to help make the Wilmington test pilot – and the full February 2009 broadcast transition – a good experience for consumers," he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association was also pleased.

"There are many easy and affordable digital TV options for any pocketbook – from low-cost digital TV sets to very affordable converter boxes," Jason Oxman, CEA senior vice president, Industry Affairs, said in a statement. "CEA, together with its industry and government partners, is committed to getting the word out about these options to consumers in Wilmington and nationwide." Concerns But not everything is sweetness and light. Some concerns linger, such as Wilmington’s location in hurricane country. Saffo said seven major hurricanes hit the area in the 1990s.

"June will be the start of hurricane season," Saffo said. "It doesn’t end until sometime in November. My concern as mayor of the city is that we do not want to transition in the event that there is a threat of a hurricane or if there is a tropical depression out there."

Accordingly, Wilmington’s public TV station will continue analog broadcasting until February 2009.

The National Association of Broadcasters is, if not concerned, at least a little leery. In a statement, NAB VP of the Digital Television Transition Jonathan Collegio was looking for answers to several questions, mostly about government plans, both federal and local.
 
"NAB hopes that this experiment will answer important questions that will help all parties ensure the success of the DTV transition," he said.

The NAB wants answers about information distribution, retailer coordination, converter coupon request prioritization, satellite operators’ coordination schedules, and cable operator coordination.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein expressed concerns about local coordination.

"In this rehearsal, I hope the FCC will coordinate with not only local broadcasters, but also with local cable operators, DBS operators, state and local governments, local community groups, and local consumer electronic retailers," he said in a press conference. "Significant local involvement supported by the federal government is critical to a successful transition."

– Ron Hendrickson

The Daily

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