Early DTV tests set for Wilmington, NC

On September 8 — about five months before the scheduled national shutdown of analog television — a DTV test will be held in Wilmington, NC, the nation’s 135th television market.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a native of Wilmington, said the test will involve the area’s five stations--WWAY (ABC), WECT (NBC), WSFX-TV, (Fox), WUNJ-TV (PBS), and WSKY-TV (Ind.) — and will be held to work out any kinks before the national shutdown set for Feb. 17, 2009. The market is apparently one of the few in the country technically capable of making the transition early, Martin said.

The FCC will monitor the switch to digital programming in Wilmington to get a better idea of the potential problems other markets can expect next year.

“The reason we’re undergoing this is to make sure we’ve done everything right from a technical perspective,” Martin told the “Washington Post.” “We’re putting everything in place to make sure consumers are informed about the transition and prepared for it.”

FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps, who pushed for the test, called the move a “positive step forward” in the overall preparations for the transition. He said he hopes additional, larger markets will also “step up to gain real-world experience” ahead of the official analog switch-off.

FCC representatives will be in Wilmington before and after the turnoff to monitor the situation. Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting (which owns a low-power CBS affiliate WILM-LP in Wilmington), predicted that there will be some temporary disruption in the market, but that the stations would quickly overcome the problems.

Five stations will turn off analog broadcasts at noon on Sept. 8. All the stations have completed their digital transition plans and are operating at full power. They volunteered to do the tests after being approached by the commission.

The FCC said it had been in consultation with cable operators and would take whatever action it needed to see that the North Carolina stations were not penalized for making the switch early. Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, said cable operators will support the broadcasters in the test.

Dish Network, a satellite operator, said it will have its new $39.95 DTV-to-analog converter boxes for sale in the Wilmington, NC, market before Sept. 8. The satellite operator said that it could start making the boxes widely available this summer.

The availability of DTV converter boxes had been a major concern of William Saffo, Wilmington’s mayor, before agreeing to the test. Using the $40 government coupons, the DTV converters will essentially be free to residents.

On the same day as the Wilmington announcement, 11 stations in the Orlando, FL, market said they will turn off analog transmissions at various times during the coming months so viewers can check their TV sets to see if they get digital transmissions.

The test, similar to a simulated analog shutdown conducted by KVBC in Las Vegas last week (see “Las Vegas station tests viewers’ readiness for DTV transition” at http://broadcastengineering.com/hdtv/kvbc-tv-las-vegas-tests-dtv-readiness-0512), will involve three test broadcasts between June and the end of the year. The first test, which involves turning off analog for one minute, is scheduled for June 25 at 7:59 p.m.

Participating Orlando-area stations include WESH-TV, WKMG-TV, WFTV-TV, WCEU-TV, WKCF-TV, WMFE-TV, WVEN-TV, WRDQ-TV, WOTF-TV, WTGL-TV, and WBCC-TV.