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Lessons from Wilmington

Now that Wilmington, N.C., has become the country“s first market to flip the digital switch, a few lessons are emerging that other markets can take to heart over the next five months before the Feb. 17, 2009 analog shutdown.

First, consumers should be encouraged to make the switch as early as possible.

“If I“m a viewer who relies on over-the-air television, I want to go ahead and get my converter box and start scanning for the digital channels in my market,” said Andy Combs, general manager of Morris-owned WWAY-TV in Wilmington, an ABC affiliate.

Second, TV stations should perform soft tests early and often. Stations in Wilmington ran that test twice, but Dan Ullmer, chief engineer at Raycom“s NBC affiliate WECT-TV and Southeast Media“s Fox affiliate WSFX-TV, said that wasn“t enough.

“I would suggest that a soft test be done in a program with very high ratings,” he said. “That“s very risky but it gets people“s attention.”

Third, consumers must be informed that they need digital antennas as well as digital converter boxes. And even people with existing antennas often had a tough time figuring out where to place it to get the signals they wanted. NBC affiliate WECT“s new digital transmitter is now located much closer to the coast, so many viewers who received the station“s analog signal could not receive its digital one.

“Many of those viewers are disappointed because they have been loyal viewers for many years, but our old analog transmitter did not cover the market properly,” Ullmer said.

Overall, observers of the Wilmington test thought it went well. After months of blanketing the market with public service announcements, offering town-hall meetings and constantly covering the story in local newscasts, less than 1 percent of households called in for help.

At the end of the transition“s second day, the FCC reported that 1,221 people had called the agency“s 1-800 number seeking assistance. Local stations and local call centers reported a few hundred more, keeping the total to less than 1,800, which represents 1 percent of Wilmington“s households.

However, only 7 percent of Wilmington households receive their television over-the-air; the rest subscribe to satellite or cable. The FCC already has identified 80 markets, which includes the nation“s largest, where more than 100,000 people rely on over-the-air television to receive their signals. Without extensive messaging and even hands-on assistance, there could be thousands of disenfranchised TV viewers come Feb. 17.

Editors Note: Television Broadcast reported on antenna reception problems in July, prompting a modest flurry of similar experiences from readers.