Wilmington, NC, Has Its Digital Close-Up

WILMINGTON, NC—If the nation's looming transition to digital broadcasting turns out to be a train wreck, as some in Congress fear, this Southern city will be the first car to jump the track.

Wilmington's commercial broadcasters turned off their old-fashioned, inefficient analog signals at noon today, risking outrage from viewers not equipped to receive a digital signal on their aging televisions.

Wilmington 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, 2009, the 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. (Click here to go to the government website.)

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

Wilmington, tucked between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, 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 only receive analog broadcasts. Only about 7 percent of households in Wilmington are in that category, fewer than the national average.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency that administers the coupon program, says more than 36,000 Wilmington households have requested 67,000 coupons and redeemed 25,000 of them.

Wilmington had 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 Wilmington Radio Shack store Sunday night.

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

"I can't give you a specific number, but I can tell you traffic has been pretty steady," he said.

It picked up today at noon when viewers who get their signals with rabbit ears turn to their favorite shows and find this text crawling across the screen: "If you are viewing this message, this television set has not yet been upgraded to digital."

All four of the city's network affiliates as well as the Trinity Broadcasting Network went digital only. The local public television station continued to broadcast both a digital and analog signal.

The reason for the change is efficiency. Digital signals use a smaller portion of the publicly owned airwaves, freeing up more space for commercial and public safety uses. A recent auction of the television airwaves raised more than $19 billion for the U.S Treasury.

The chief worry to date about the transition has been the so-called "cliff effect" and the possible need for new antennas for viewers.

Unlike analog signals, digital broadcasts either come in clear or they don't come in at all. Some viewers accustomed to watching fuzzy channels won't have that option after the change, and will need more powerful antennas.

Given the amount of publicity, the flatness of the terrain, the high number of coupon requests and the relatively low number of viewers who rely on over-the-air broadcasting, the Wilmington test is unlikely to signify the start of any train wreck.

But that still may not relieve the anxiety among members of Congress, who will be on the receiving end of their constituents wrath if things go wrong.

But there may be still be some reason for worry, even here.

At a Wal-Mart Supercenter the last night before the changeover, in the electronics department, a clock counted down the hours until the changeover. Beside it hung this sign: "Attention customers. We are out of converter boxes at this time until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.