Broadcasters in this coastal town figure they’re doing everything they can to get the word out about the area’s first-in-the-nation, nearly market-wide shutoff of full-power analog television.
“I cannot believe the amount of time, money, commercials and coupons being spent by my and your government to notify the public of the impending digital TV switch,” said one Wilmington resident in a letter to the Star-News, the local paper. “I hope this paper will print the names of any individuals who claim to not be aware when the change is made. I would like to find what rock they have been hiding under.”
The FCC and local broadcasters agreed to make Wilmington a “test market” to see if the population would get the information it needed and take action to continue reception of local television, should they want it. Most of the stations in the market will end analog broadcasts (posting only an informational message) at noon Sept. 8, some five months before the rest of the country shuts off full-power analog at midnight on Feb. 17, 2009.
The people of Wilmington may have the message about DTV and converter boxes, but some of the stations themselves have had a busy summer getting their DTV signals up and ready.
WILM-LP, a low-power CBS affiliate owned by Capitol Broadcasting Co., the digital pioneer that runs WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., is firing up its DTV broadcasts and moving to a 900-foot-plus tower in Delco, N.C., owned by University of North Carolina Public TV. The station also plans to seek Class A status and ultimately full-power classification.
John L. Greene Jr., Capitol’s vice president for special projects, said he expected WILM’s DTV to be on air by mid-August. The new 15 kW antenna, with a full circular coverage pattern, should provide much better coverage than the 5 kW sidemount antenna that’s been broadcasting analog from a lower tower in town. “We’re improving quality of signal, and the programming as well,” Greene said.
The station already broadcasts two-and-a-half hours of local news each week and is adding another half-hour to reach the three hour level required of Class A stations.
WECT, the local NBC affiliate, is also moving from the Delco tower to a Harris Diamond DTV transmitter on the 1,800-foot stick at Winnebow, N.C., joining Fox affiliate WSFX (an operational partner of WECT) and WWAY, the ABC affiliate.
WECT and WSFX are also going HD, rolling out a new HD control room before Sept. 8, serving 720p for WSFX and 1080i for WECT.
WWAY has nothing left to do except shut off its analog tower, saving about $100,000 in power bills on the year, said General Manager Andy Combs.
“We don’t have anything left,” he said. “We’ve been ready to roll for the last six years.”
On the big day, the stations will all switch to a slate with information explaining the end of analog along with directions on how to get the digital signals. The message will stay up for about a month. Also, should a hurricane or other emergency come along, the stations could return to broadcasting info again on the analog channels if they figured they could reach more people that way.
Some stations will have regularly scheduled noon news—where end of analog may be that day’s top story.
Broadcasters hadn’t yet decided on any festivities or photo-ops related to the turn-off, but some mentioned that they’d heard FCC Chairman Kevin Martin—who has longtime personal ties to North Carolina—would be in town. But the broadcasters also likened the moment to Y2K, when the story of the day turned out to be the absence of a story.
Public station WUNJ, a translator of the UNC system, is technically unable to separate Wilmington-specific DTV information from that going to the rest of the state. It’s remaining on the air in analog until February and will also be an emergency resource.
Although the small, flat Wilmington market is not representative of all situations, the goal is to use data from here to help guide the rest of the country. Also, some analog will remain: In addition to the public station and low-power MyNetworkTV affiliate, some viewers can receive stations over the air from neighboring markets.
Combs said his station has tested its DTV signal all over town and it’s coming in better than analog. The station is broadcasting network material in HD and is “90 percent of the way” to local HD production, with studio cameras and switchers all HD-ready.
“I think the number of over-the-air viewers is going to increase,” he said.
The broadcasters will have a central call-in number for problems, from which they hope to gather useful data. “The collection of data’s going to be, I think, extremely valuable for the whole country,” said Greene. “What we learn in Wilmington can help everyone.”