DTV Test Market Raises Hopes, Questions

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, joined by broadcasters and officials from his home state of North Carolina, triumphantly announced the nation’s first DTV pilot program Thursday. Most broadcasters in the coastal town of Wilmington will shut off their analog signals for good on Labor Day, Sept. 8, to spot and solve kinks in the digital transition, they said.

Martin rated the move with another North Carolina first, the Wright brothers famed airplane flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But Democratic Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein quickly countered the euphoria, praising Wilmington (DMA No. 135) for taking such a key step in the “uncoordinated DTV transition process,” and urging the commission to launch the same kind of efforts elsewhere in the country.

“Such a level of coordination is truly unprecedented,’ Adelstein said. “I hope it will give the commission a wakeup call about how daunting the task is that lies before us. ... We must address the different question of whether we have similar comprehensive plan for the rest of America. Do we have a coordinated plan?”

The enthusiasm and advanced digital buildout of Wilmington broadcasters, along with the area’s low reliance on over-the-air TV (about 7.5 percent) make it a good place to try a transition, broadcasters and officials noted. The FCC will have staff on hand essentially nonstop through the big day, and Martin touted planned outreach efforts to civic groups and participation in a list of the kind of local events (state fair, blueberry festival) that someone running for office mind find himself at.

“If you don’t know that the transition’s coming in Wilmington, you won’t be breathing,” said Jim Goodmon, president of digital pioneer Capitol Broadcasting Co., which owns WILM (Ch. 10), a low-power CBS affiliate in Wilmington.

That’s exactly the kind of extra effort that caused Adelstein to warn against drawing false conclusions about other markets. Will the FCC send staff to blueberry festivals and strawberry festivals in other areas, he asked?

“Will we gain a false sense of complacency?” Adelstein asked. “Ad hoc efforts are not a substitute for a thoughtful coordinated plan. Every community in America deserves nothing less than what we will put into Wilmington.”

The idea for the test market came from Commissioner Michael Copps, who picked it up from the United Kingdom, where the DTV transition is happening market by market, and station by station within each market.

Martin said the FCC approached many broadcasters but found fewer than 10 markets where all the broadcasters had their digital signals at full power and ready to go. Martin said additional pilot programs were possible.

NAB issued a statement praising the development, but with several concerns.

“How will the government ensure retailer coordination so that enough coupon-certified converter boxes will be available given the increased demand of the early shut-off date?” NAB asked. “How will the government prioritize converter box coupon application requests originating from the Wilmington DMA, given the current national backlog of coupon requests?”

The experiment won’t end all analog signals in Wilmington. The public TV station has no independent content outside of its state network, so messages warning of the Sept. 8 shutoff would have gone all over the state and caused possible confusion, said a UNC TV spokesman. The station will also remain the key analog TV source for emergency information in the area.

One low-power station, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, operates only in analog and will not participate in the experiment. Also, viewers with good antennas may still be able to receive signals from neighboring markets.

Broadcasters and commission staff also discussed the possibility of leaving the analog channel on with only a message informing people of the transition and directing them to instructions on how to receive DTV.

Andy Combs, general manager of ABC affiliate WWAY, said local broadcasters were approached by the North Carolina Broadcasters Association.

“My immediate response was no, just like everybody else,” he said.

Combs’ main initial fear was losing satellite viewers. But Dish and DirecTV agreed to get digital receivers in place to handle the signals. Martin also said positive feedback, but not commitments, had been received from local cable providers.

Once that concern was addressed, Combs said, the positives outweighed the negatives. If there is a problem, he noted, Wilmington will have the full attention of the FCC. Plus, there is significant cost savings in shutting down the analog transmitters.

It will be busy summer for local engineers; the market is also slated to complete its 2 GHz digital transition for BAS gear in August.

He said the phone has already been ringing with people concerned about emergency alerts during hurricane season. But the public broadcaster will remain in analog and battery-operated DTVs are available for as little as $200, Combs noted. And, the public will have to face the same question in fall 2009 in any case.

“We are going to be prepared as a market, much better than the rest of the country,” he said.