Wilmington NC: What Did We Learn?

On September 8, most of the TV stations in Wilmington, NC turned off their analog broadcasts and broadcast only in digital. While most say that the transition went smoothly, there were still plenty of people caught unprepared for the change. This experiment was important so that local, state, and federal government officials could learn from the Wilmington experience, and hopefully maket the transition smoother for the rest of the country when it occurs next February.

We all are fortunate that Dr. Connie Ledoux Book of Elon University in North Carolina had the foresight to have a team of student observers in Wilmington on the day of the transition. Dr. Book and her students helped answer the phone calls from area residents with problems, and the team’s observations provide some helpful details about the experience. Dr. Book was invited to testify about the event before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on September 16. She generously shared a copy of her testimony with me, which contained a number of useful insights.

Dr. Book’s overall impression is that the Wilmington transition went well. Government at all levels was involved in helping educate residents, and most were prepared. On the day of the transition, special resources were available. For example, Wilmington firefighters formed special crews who go to residents’ homes on request, and help them connect their converter boxes correctly. While they were there, they would also provide a courtesy test of the smoke alarms in the home. Dr. Book reports that this sort of outreach is an important part of making the transition go smoothly.

She also suggests that local stations “blink” their analog broadcasts more often, especially during some of the most popular shows. This means interrupting the progam to put up a text screen stating that this television might not be prepared for the transition, and contact details for additional information. She also recommends that station personnel go out and test signal strength on a block-by-block basis in their broadcast area, and make this information available to residents. Dr. Book found in Wilmington that there were hardship cases, and that the local stations should have a supply of converter boxes to give to viewers on the day of transition. These could be bought by the stations themselves, or some provision could be made to cover their cost through the rebate coupon program.

Dr. Book made a number of other recommendations, but the key point is that television programming is the most effective way to communicate with viewers.

It was valuable to have Dr. Book and her students on the ground in Wilmington on the day of the transition, as their observations can indeed help other communities prepare. I’m not sure that I share her optimism about the process, however. Wilmington has been placed under a national magnifying glass, and all sorts of resources have been focused on helping residents make the transition smoothly. Even with this effort, many residents were not prepared. The local WalMart sold out of converter boxes three days before the changeover.

I doubt that most stations have the resources to do thorough testing of their broadcast signal strength throughout their range, even if they limited it to the fringe areas. And getting that information efficiently to the residents who need it will be a challenge, since most people don’t need it (because they have cable or satellite service). And the idea that all communities will be able to mobilize their fire departments or other agencies to assist anyone with problems connecting their converter boxes paints a nice image of community service, but it’s not going to be practical in many places, ranging from dense urban markets to broadly spread out rural communities. Wilmington is a fairly compact and self-contained market, so there are aspects of this test that are not representative of what people will experience in their cities and towns.

I do agree with Dr. Book that much has been done already, and that more can be done easily — such as blinking analog programming — to help make people aware of the transition. I still believe that many people, primarily poor and elderly residents, are going to have most of the problems when the changeover occurs, and local communities need to be prepared to field their questions and provide them effective assistance if they can. I expect that there will still be some bumps left in this road to all-digital TV broadcasts.