Wilmington goes all-digital

All five Wilmington, NC, commercial television stations were set to shut down analog broadcasting today at noon in the nation’s first real test of digital television broadcasting.

The only thing that could prevent the full shutdown would be a last minute attack on the area by a significant hurricane. Gary McNair, general manager of Wilmington’s WECT, said the analog switch will be pulled “unless there are lives at stake.” The FCC has said stations can continue to broadcast in analog during weather emergencies.

UNC-TV, the state’s public television station, will not yet switch off analog to allow any residents without a converter to access emergency broadcasts during a storm.

In a final soft test on Sept. 2, there were about 10 calls to a call center set up for analog-only viewers to get information about how to continue to receive the station signal after the Sept. 8 shutdown.

WILM-TV, the CBS affiliate, recently moved its broadcast tower to Delco — making its signal available to more viewers in the Wilmington area. “The higher tower and higher power allows for a much greater footprint, covering the vast majority of our five counties,” Constance Knox, the station’s general manager, said in a statement.

For viewers having trouble accessing the new signal, Knox said: “Keep in mind that all of the local Wilmington stations have moved to UHF frequencies, therefore over-the-air viewers will need UHF antennas. The biggest issues we’re seeing are not getting antennas high enough. In some cases, attic or roof-mounted antennas may be needed to receive all stations in the area.”

Wilmington is getting special attention from the FCC, whose staff is looking for any problems in an attempt to head off larger issues when the nation goes digital next Feb. 17. About a dozen FCC officials have been in the North Carolina coastal town for the past four months visiting residents to make sure they are ready for the switch.

The nation’s 135th-largest media market with 180,000 TV-watching households, Wilmington should be more prepared than most markets for DTV. The NAB said 77 percent of its residents are ready for the switch.

However, critics like the Consumer Union said most American markets will not get the attention from the FCC that Wilmington has gotten, and that success in North Carolina may not be indicative of the rest of the country. About 8 percent of Wilmington’s homes rely on antennas, compared with 12 percent nationwide, said the Nielsen Co.

Most important is that Wilmington’s topography is flat — a fact that ensures better DTV reception than areas with large hills, mountains, or tall buildings interfering with television signals. Rougher terrain requires tall outdoor antennas. This problem, predicted to be among the biggest with DTV transmission, is not being widely tested in Wilmington.

“It’s great Wilmington has come forward and offered to be the canary in the coal mine,” Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of “Consumer Reports” magazine, told the “Los Angeles Times.” “But we have several concerns about just how good a canary Wilmington is going to be.”