Media Scene

A test – but not only a test – in Wilmington

This historic port city is where the future of TV has come to rehearse.

At noon Monday, Wilmington's stations are scheduled to be the first in the nation to switch over entirely to digital broadcasting, a technical revolution for TV, and one that will be the standard nationwide come February.

Wilmington is the test case for the technology, which requires new receivers for those who get their signals over the air rather than through cable or satellite.

As with any test case, lessons are being learned. Like attitudes about the switch.

“A lot of people think it's some kind of government plot,” says Gary McNair, general manager of Wilmington's NBC affiliate, WECT. “We get e-mails to that effect all the time.”

In one way, the conspiracy theorists are right. It's the government that sets broadcast standards and mandated that on Feb. 17, 2009, all television stations in the United States transmit their programs only digitally. Since the development of television in the 1940s, signals have been sent in an analog format, like radio.

Digital signals provide a crisper picture and better sound and eliminate static. They also take up less space on the broadcast spectrum, freeing up frequencies for other uses, including emergency services and personal communication devices. When the government finishes auctioning off the old television bands, it expects to reap billions of dollars from technology companies eager to exploit the frontier.

For people with cable or satellite TV, the change will have no effect. Their providers will translate the signals into whatever their sets now accept.

But the rabbit-ear crowd, who get signals over the air by antenna, will need to get a digital television or a converter box from an electronics store for their old sets. Prices range from about $50 to $100. Coupons worth $40 off are available from the government.

Wilmington picked for test

Wilmington – the 135th largest of the 210 television markets in the nation – was chosen to be the guinea pig for the new technology because all the stations there were already broadcasting digital signals. Representatives from the Federal Communications Commission have been in town for months, helping provide information to viewers about the switch in town meetings and at festivals and fairs.

Promotion for the switchover has been so heavy that some complain they've been saturated with information. “I hope this paper will print the names of any individuals who claim not to be aware when the change is made,” Charles Bradley wrote to the Wilmington Star News. “I would like to find what rock they have been hiding under.”

Andy Combs, general manager of Wilmington's ABC affiliate, WWAY, agrees. “People are tired of hearing about it,” he says.

For his station, the switchover brings certain benefits. Manufacturers have quit making replacement parts for the old analog transmitters and every breakdown launches a treasure hunt for old components. Also, by cutting off the analog signal, WWAY expects to save more than $40,000 a year on its power bill.

Wilmington broadcasters will leave their old transmitters on for a month, and those who tune in will see a slide that says, “If you are viewing this message, this television set has not yet been upgraded to digital” and instructs viewers where to go for information.

Switchover in Charlotte

Other broadcasters in the state are also stepping up awareness campaigns. On Monday, for example, Charlotte's WCNC (Channel 36) will interrupt its 6 p.m. newscast for 36 seconds with such a message for analog-only viewers, says station manager Tim Morrissey. A hotline will be set up for viewers' questions about DTV.

“It is a fairly seismic change,” he says. “But Charlotte is one of the better prepared markets in the country in preparation for digital conversion.”

Estimates are that only about 4 percent of households in the 22-county Charlotte broadcast market – No. 24 in size nationally – aren't equipped to get digital TV. Already, 90.2 percent of homes are hooked up to cable or satellite service. Nationally, the figure is 88.1 percent and in the Wilmington area it is 91.6 percent.

How big a deal will the switchover be?

“Y2K,” says Dan Ullmer, chief engineer for WECT, referring to the groundless fears in 1999 that computers wouldn't function when the century flipped. “If people are ignoring this, it's because they want to, not because they don't know about it.”