- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Five months ahead of the nationwide transition from analog to digital television, government and industry officials are hoping a test run in Wilmington, N.C., will reveal any glitches that could hamper the national switch in February.

The seaside city’s five commercial broadcasters cut off their analog TV signals and switched over to digital broadcasts at noon Monday, becoming the first U.S. market to go completely digital.

The biggest leap in broadcast TV since color replaced black-and-white, digital delivers a better picture while using less spectrum, giving broadcasters space for new channels.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo , broadcasters and other officials maded the switch at a press event there by flipping a giant light switch after counting down the last 10 seconds before the transition.

“First in flight, first in digital,” Mr. Saffo said.

The move caps four months of consumer outreach by the FCC and broadcasters to educate TV viewers who rely on over-the-air analog TV.

To continue receiving broadcast TV signals after the government-mandated switch, those households must take one of three steps: buy a digital-to-analog converter box; subscribe to cable or satellite service; or buy a new digital-ready TV. Under a Commerce Department program, up to $1.5 billion has been authorized to subsidize the cost of converter boxes, which start around $40.

Wilmington volunteered to serve as a test market earlier this year. About 14,000, or 8 percent, of its households use rabbit-ear antennas, said Gary McNair, vice president and general manager of WECT-TV, the area’s NBC affiliate. A recent poll by the National Association of Broadcasters found 97 percent of the city’s residents were aware of the digital transition.

Nationally, about 19.6 million households rely on over-the-air TV, according to the NAB, which has spent more than $1 billion on consumer education. In June, the trade group estimated national awareness of the transition at 90 percent.

“The measure of success in Wilmington is what is going to happen next February,” said Mr. Martin, a Republican.

He was joined by Commissioner Michael J. Copps, a Democrat who led the push for field tests ahead of next year’s transition.

“There was no DTV playbook for you all the memorize,” Mr. Copps said. “You are actually writing the playbook for all of America.”

Last month, the media-regulating agency announced a nationwide blitz by FCC officials leading up to the transition, targeting 80 vulnerable markets in which 15 percent of households rely on analog broadcasts.