‘Digital TV certainly has … potential'

Congress mandated the switch to digital television, but Kevin Martin has to make sure it happens.

He's the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and an N.C. native. Martin, 41, grew up in Waxhaw and holds degrees from both UNC Chapel Hill, where he was student body president, and Duke University. He earned his law degree at Harvard.

Martin has made several trips to Wilmington recently as it prepares to make history as the first market to go all digital. He talked with the (Raleigh) News & Observer about the experience. Questions and responses were edited for space and clarity.

Q: First off, what's so great about digital TV? I've got to imagine somebody is going to read this and say, ‘Who cares?'

Digital TV certainly has the potential for having a much better, clearer picture and high-quality sound. … A lot of broadcasters may decide they want to multicast and have multiple broadcast channels. You have the potential to get more over-the-air broadcasting and better, clearer pictures.

Q: Why was Wilmington chosen to make the transition first?

When the idea of trying to find a test market came up, I asked the staff to do an analysis of the markets in the country that might be eligible for an early transition. They came back with only seven that were in a position to actually make the transition early. … This is not something we could mandate. The broadcasters down there and the community said they were willing to do this.

Q: You've been down several times. What have you learned?

It's been very helpful for the commission to do this. We've learned about things like what do we do about converter boxes for battery-operated televisions that people use in emergencies?

The broadcasters, because of the awareness, contacted some of the converter box manufacturers who developed a battery-operated pack you can attach to some of the converter boxes. We've learned the importance of working with grassroots organizations to get the word out.

Q: What will success look like in Wilmington?

Success in Wilmington ultimately will be determined if we have a successful transition next February. … Obviously, we want to do our best to minimize the burden on residents in Wilmington and maximize their ability to benefit from the transition, and we're working very hard to make sure they're all aware of it and prepared for it. But ultimately, this has been in part about a learning experience, about what we can learn to put in place to help us with the transition next February.

Q: There has been criticism that the Wilmington test is not representative because all of the attention the FCC and other have lavished on the market. Other communities probably won't get as much focus as they make the switch.

I disagree. … I don't like the characterization that somehow Wilmington isn't a good example because there's been too much attention provided to them. That attention was to substitute for the kind of educational efforts that the industry is going to be providing nationally and will be providing on a stepped up basis between now and next February.

During the time we've been trying to educate the folks in Wilmington about this, the National Broadcasters Association have run half a million PSAs (public service announcements) and half a million screen crawls telling people the transition is next February. The community down in Wilmington didn't get the benefit of any of those educational efforts.

And those efforts are going to be ramping up as we approach next February.