Wilmington—Spin From The Other Side

We've all heard ad nauseam that the DTV test in Wilmington, N.C., was a success. "First in flight, first in digital," the sign above the big switch said. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin called the joint efforts to inform viewers of the transition by his commission, the broadcasters, and the community "effective."

Of course, that's spin—words to generate confidence from those whose job it is to make DTV palatable. But a closer look at what happened in Wilmington only confirms what's been known for years: Simply knowing the DTV transition will occur doesn't fix the antenna and reception problems certain to follow.


First of all, Wilmington, as a test bed for DTV, was not very challenging. It's mostly flat terrain, a few tall buildings and not a lot of structures to create multipath problems. Yet, many viewers wanting over-the-air reception still needed better antennas—much better antennas—the big 1950s-era type with electric rotors that adjust the directional characteristics of the elements.

For those with any sense of history, even the public mention of antennas was a big no-no in the DTV world a decade ago. Sony's chief technology officer was banished after suggesting the need for antennas at a 1998 pre-NAB news conference. Broadcasters always tried to put the best case forward for DTV. Perfection, it would be—pristine pictures and sound.

Antennas were off the agenda.

That is until recently, when Centris Consulting Inc., a market-research firm, had the guts to challenge the status quo with a series of reports on DTV reception and the need for antennas. Suddenly, with the reality of the transition staring down on the broadcast industry, it was OK to talk about the forbidden topic. Wow, how times have changed!

At first, the broadcasters challenged Centris's methodology and results. Then, while challenging them, they also admitted that antennas would be an issue for some viewers. By the time the Wilmington test rolled around, all bets were off on refusal to talk about antennas.

Dan Ullmer, chief engineer of WECT and WSFX, told reporters that when "the channels didn't miraculously appear," Wilmington viewers had "to get better antennas."

Andy Combs, general manager of WWAY, said "many reception issues are generally easy to resolve, but folks may need a better antenna."

Connie Knox, general manager of WILM, had this suggestion for the rest of the nation: larger markets make the switch early, before Feb. 17.

"If they don't, they're going to have a much bigger problem on their hands," Knox said.


The big lesson of Wilmington was not that people didn't know of the DTV transition, but they didn't know how to receive DTV signals. Some blamed converter boxes, other blamed antennas. But the problem was always reception, reception, reception.

After Wilmington, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who pushed for the test, noted that even with all the warnings, many viewers were still unable to receive over-the-air TV.

"Many will have no idea why or even know the right questions to ask," Copps warned in a letter to Martin.

"Do they know about the digital 'cliff effect?'" he asked. "Do they know that some antennas are VHF-only and that many stations are moving to the UHF band? Do they know that low power stations may still be broadcasting in analog and, assuming they have purchased a converter box that will pass those signals through, how to navigate to those channels? Do they know that hundreds of stations across the country will be changing channels at the end of the transition and they may need to 'rescan' their converter box or DTV set when they wake up on Feb. 18 in order to find the new channel locations?"

Of course, they don't know, Mr. Copps. And one wonders how much work these average viewers will do to even find out. That's why the cable industry—only a phone call away—is absolutely giddy with excitement. They see the realities that broadcasters have avoided for years.


Comcast Corp. took some time away from tinkering with Internet speeds, to predict a dramatic increase in new cable TV subscriptions. They predict using DTV data from Centris, of picking up as many as two million households in their service area after analog television is turned off in February. Comcast, of course, is counting on those over-the-air viewers who still use a roof antenna or rabbit-ear antennas. They are betting these people are not going to crawl up on the roof or pay installers to put up vastly improved antennas. Nope, they are just going to call the cable, satellite or phone company.

In its research, Centris has cited the least-prepared markets for DTV in Comcast's franchise areas are Houston; Salt Lake City; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; Albuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M.; and Portland, Ore. Comcast is watching the situation closely.

"The real $64,000 question here is how many units is [the DTV transition] going to generate?" Comcast executive Stephen B. Burke said in a recent conference call with analysts, "We think it's going to be a substantial number of new basic customers."

At an average of $64 a month for service, a projected 600,000 new customers, based on some predictions, would add $460 million a year to Comcast's revenue. Factor that to the rest of the nation and you have some serious transitional numbers.

Centris predicts about 17 million U.S. households receive free over-the-air TV in the United States and that number will fall sharply after the transition. Barry Goodstadt, a Centris senior vice president, said Americans will need more powerful antennas to receive digital signals.

Broadcasters, the FCC, and Congress continue their campaign to "educate" viewers about the transition. They offer government subsidized analog-to-digital converter boxes as the solution. But, in many markets, none of this will work.

It will take a very tall, motorized outdoor antenna to receive DTV signals. The simple question is will people today install such antennas in order to pick up a few local stations? Or will they subscribe to cable, satellite or Internet TV to pick up hundreds of channels?

I think I know the answer and have written about it for years. What I find amazing is that broadcasters continue to pretend the problem doesn't exist.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.