Wimington NC: Lab Rat?

Wilmington, North Carolina has been known as the high school home of basketball legend Michael Jordan, as well as the backdrop for the TV shows Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill. Well, Wilmington is about to make history again, when the television viewers there get to set their clocks ahead this fall… by about five months.

The FCC has decided that maybe we should test this transition to digital television broadcasting, just so that we can make sure all the kinks have been worked out before we go ahead and ask the whole country (well, most of it) to cease analog television broadcasts on February 17, 2009. So in less than four months from now — on September 8, 2008 — the full-power TV stations in Wilmington will turn off their analog transmissions.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) issued a statement last week about this decision, which raises a number of issues that could be problems with the national transition. For example, the NAB states that there are low-power television stations that will not be required to switch to digital at this time. According to another source, WILM-LP is a low-power station that is a CBS network affiliate, but apparently it and a local translator station for a religious network will switch to digital broadcasts by the September date. But the local PBS station will not make the change, as it is part of a statewide network and part of an official emergency broadcast system (which might be useful to have during hurricane season). One remaining low-power station has also chosen not to convert to digital, since it is not required to do so.

One problem with the stations that remain analog is that not all converter boxes will pass through the analog channels, so viewers who get converter boxes may need a switch to access the analog and digital stations. The NAB is also concerned about how the FCC will give precedence to Wilmington viewers who have requested rebate coupons for the converter boxes, and how inventories will be maintained to prepare for the inevitable run on converters that will come with the shut-off.

Given that studies show only 75% of US television viewers are aware that there’s something happening with their television signals, I’m betting that this cut-off will be a big shock to Wilmington residents who don’t have cable or satellite service. As the government and broadcasters step up their advertising campaigns to increase awareness of the February 17, 2009 date, how are they going to reach the Wilmington market to effectively educate them about their eaerlier change date?

I think that this trial run is a great idea. I think that waiting until there is less than four months to prepare for it is a terrible idea. This trial market should have been identified and isolated from the start. As it is, I expect that there are going to be a lot of confused and unhappy football fans in the Wilmington market on September 14th.