Digital-only TV debuts in Wilmington

With the flick of an eight-foot switch at midday Monday, Wilmington became the nation's first market to change to digital-only broadcasting.

The switch wasn't actually connected to anything, but it did serve as a centerpiece for a downtown noon ceremony marking the moment commercial broadcasters turned off their old-fashioned, inefficient analog signals.

Wilmington has volunteered to be a canary in a digital coal mine – a test market for the national conversion to digital broadcasting.

The rest of the nation's full-power television stations won't be converting until Feb. 17, a date set by Congress.

Viewers who receive programming through an antenna and do not own newer-model digital TV sets by the time of the changeover must buy a converter box. The government is providing two $40 coupons per household to help defray the cost.

Viewers who subscribe to a cable or satellite service won't be affected.

Wilmington, tucked between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean four hours southeast of Charlotte, is the 135th largest television market in the U.S. with about 180,000 television households, according to The Nielsen Co.

In February, Nielsen estimated there were more than 13 million households in the U.S. with television sets that can receive only analog broadcasts. Only about 8 percent of households in Wilmington are in that category, fewer than the national average.

Wilmington has been barraged with public service advertising about the change.

“In a normal hour of television, you could see 12 commercials,” said Larry Pakowski, who was working in a Radio Shack store in Wilmington Sunday night.

Sales of the store's $59.99 converter boxes have been brisk, he said.

At noon Monday, viewers not equipped were greeted with the following message: “If you are viewing this message, this television set has not yet been upgraded to digital.”