Wilmington, N.C., broadcasters will be the first in the nation to drop their full-power analog signals, and they see themselves less as guinea pigs and more as pioneers taking a giant leap into the digital future at noon on Sept. 8.
Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting Co. in Raleigh, N.C.—owner of one of the stations—looked back at the years of naysayers.
“I remember going to NAB meetings and people standing up and saying things like, ‘Quality’s not important. We can’t afford to do this. This is just awful,’” he said at a press conference at the FCC announcing the test market. “But none of that is right. We can’t afford not to do this.”
Sure, there could be some disruptions, he said, be they in September or in February 2009, when the rest of the country completes the switch. But Goodmon predicted the stations will have many more viewers two years after the transition than before—and the high quality and advanced services of DTV will make it happen.
“There is no future for over-the-air television unless we go digital,” he said, noting the news came the same day the ATSC celebrated its 25 years of standards setting. “Having this digital standard and working this out meant that we can all stay in the broadcasting business long-range. ... So keep your head up and look over the hill [and] you understand that this keeps us in the business. As a matter of fact it gives us the best technology, the best picture there is.”
THE BEST THERE IS
Goodmon said more and more HDTV viewers, at least the ones he knows, watch off the air, because that’s where the best signal is. “It’s not on cable, it’s not on satellite,” he said. “It’s not even close.”
The idea of a test run for the DTV transition came from FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who brought up the idea in March based on the United Kingdom’s experience. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said the commission approached broadcasters in the other markets—fewer than 10—that have enough full-power DTV now to do such a test. Other test markets are still possible, he said.
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 local cable providers had given positive feedback.
FRONT OF THE LINE
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.
“We are going to be prepared as a market, much better than the rest of the country,” he said.
Thomas Postema, vice president and general manager of Wilmington Fox affiliate WSFX, said the massive outreach effort proposed by the FCC helped assuage fears. “With the support that we’re going to have, we all feel very confident. The GMs came away with a good sense of security,” he said. “We’re honored, we’re excited.”
WSFX even has a digital control room set for completion in August, Postema said.
Broadcasters and commission staff also discussed the possibility of leaving the analog channels on with only a message informing people of the transition and directing them to instructions on how to receive DTV.
Capitol owns the low-power CBS affiliate, WLIM. That station and the low-power TBN affiliate are scheduled to complete their digital buildouts before the big day, Sept. 8. A low-power MyNetworkTV affiliate will not participate in the experiment, and the local noncommercial station, which broadcasts only a statewide feed, will continue in analog and be the primary analog source for emergency information, should it be needed.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein rained on some of the euphoria, calling the DTV transition effort “uncoordinated” and urging the commission to launch the same kind of efforts elsewhere in the country.
The test market will include FCC staff in the Wilmington area, cooperation with civic groups and participation in numerous local events.
“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 a similar comprehensive plan for the rest of America. Do we have a coordinated plan?”