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Wilmington Flips the Digital Switch

Hurricane Hanna threatened to delay the big show, but Wilmington, N.C., did indeed leap forward today to become the first U.S. market to make the digital broadcast television transition.

With the flip of a symbolic switch at historic Thalian Hall stations WECT (NBC), WILM-LP (CBS), WSFX-TV (Fox), WWAY (ABC), and W51CW (Trinity Broadcasting) made the literal switch and started broadcasting only digital signals at 12:00 p.m. ET. The rest of the U.S.'s full-power stations are slated to cut over on Feb. 17, 2009 -- a mere 162 days away.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo handled the symbolic side, flipping a bigger-than-life light switch from "analog" to "digital." (For pic of that and other snaps taken from the Webcast of this morning's event, please click the image below.)

The price is right

Although people involved with the project prefer terms like "digital TV pioneer," Wilmington, the 135th-largest U.S. TV market -- has become the nation's DTV transition lab rat.

In May, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps got his wish when the city, which happens to be FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's hometown, volunteered to switch early and provide the rest of the nation with data and information to help with the heavy balance of the transition that still remains. (See DTV Transition Test Bed .)

Given the wealth of attention Wilmington has received so far, some, including the Consumers Union of U.S. Inc. , have questioned whether the rest of the transition will run as smoothly as it did in Wilmington, or if the results in the eastern city will instead create a "false positive."

"We can say with a high degree of confidence no other community in the country is going to receive anywhere close to the kind of government attention and resources now being thrown at Wilmington," the Consumers Union noted, pointing out the all five counties in that market are "tightly packed and basically flat" and may, therefore, not offer much guidance on how well (or poorly) digital TV reception will be in other markets. Some studies have indicated there will be some serious gaps in broadcast coverage following the transition. (See DTV Transition’s ‘Major Glitch’.)

Copps, for one, wished that more communities had stepped up to the plate and volunteered to expand tests across different terrain and demographics. "We'd have a lot fatter playbook for next February," he said. "There is no substitute for real world experience."

Copps also requested one last "favor" of Wilmington: to distill and analyze the early transition and ensure that the data is disseminated to the rest of the country.

Earlier, Martin stressed that the success of the transition "depends on the commitment of the local community," noting that FCC staffers have been on the ground in Wilmington almost every day since it was announced as an early transition market in May. Since then, there have been more than 400 outreach events.

"The measure of success here in Wilmington is what will happen next February," Martin said.

And here's a snippet of what's happened there so far. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) acting administrator Meredith Atwell Baker said 69,000 converter box coupons so far had been requested by the Wilmington DMA, with 47 percent of that total coming from homes that rely on over-the-air television signals. As of Sunday, Sept. 7, 28,000 coupons had been redeemed.

Customers of Wilmington-area cable operator incumbents, which include Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Charter Communications Inc. , should be in good shape so long as their analog sets are connected to an active cable outlet. Per federal rules adopted last September, MSOs, at least those that don't fall under an FCC exemption published last week, are on the hook to deliver the analog and digital versions of "must carry" stations following the transition. (See FCC OKs Dual TV Carriage Rules and FCC Details Small Cable DTV Exemption.)

In order to comply with that rule, many MSOs will have to enlist a new breed of equipment that can convert incoming digital signals back to analog. (See Rebuilding Analog TV .) However, if some predictions come true and there's a surge of new basic cable subscribers coming, those operators shouldn't have much trouble paying for that gear. (See DTV Transition Could Catalyze Cable.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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