Southern city first in U.S. to make the switch

With the flick of an eight-foot switch at midday Monday, this Southern city became the first market in the U.S. to make the change to digital-only broadcasting.

The switch wasn’t really connected to anything, but it did serve as a centerpiece for a downtown ceremony at 12 noon EDT marking the moment that commercial broadcasters voluntarily turned off their old-fashioned, inefficient analog signals.

The move risks outrage from viewers not equipped to receive a digital signal on their aging televisions.

Wilmington has volunteered to be a canary in a digital coal mine – a test market for the national conversion to digital broadcasting.

The rest of the nation’s full-power television stations won’t be converting until Feb. 17, 2009, a date set by Congress.

Viewers who receive programming through an antenna and do not own newer-model digital TV sets by the time of the changeover must buy a converter box. The government is providing two $40 coupons per household to help defray the cost.

Viewers who subscribe to a cable or satellite service won’t be affected.

Wilmington, tucked between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, is the 135th largest television market in the U.S. with about 180,000 television households, according to The Nielsen Co.

In February, Nielsen estimated there were more than 13 million households in the U.S. with television sets that can only receive analog broadcasts. Only about 8 percent of households in Wilmington are in that category, fewer than the national average.

Wilmington has been barraged with public service advertising about the change.

“In a normal hour of television, you could see 12 commercials,” said Larry Pakowski, who was working in a Wilmington Radio Shack store Sunday night.

Sales of the store’s $59.99 converter boxes have been brisk, he said.

“I can’t give you a specific number, but I can tell you traffic has been pretty steady,” he said.

At noon Monday, viewers not equipped were greeted with the following message: “If you are viewing this message, this television set has not yet been upgraded to digital.”

Stations and federal phone banks can only sit and wait for the phones to ring.

All four of the city’s network affiliates as well as the Trinity Broadcasting Network will go digital only. The local public television station will broadcast both a digital and analog signal.

The reason for the change is efficiency. Digital signals use up a smaller portion of the publicly owned airwaves, freeing up more space for commercial and public safety uses. A recent auction of the television airwaves raised more than $19 billion for the U.S Treasury.

The chief worry to date about the transition has been the so-called “cliff effect” and the possible need for new antennas for viewers.

Unlike analog signals, digital broadcasts either come in clear or they don’t come in at all. Some viewers accustomed to watching fuzzy channels won’t have that option after the change, and will need more powerful antennas.

Given the amount of publicity, the flatness of the terrain, the high number of coupon requests and the relatively low number of viewers who rely on over-the-air broadcasting, the Wilmington test is unlikely to signify the start of any train wreck.

But that still may not relieve the anxiety among members of Congress, who will be on the receiving end of their constituents wrath if things go wrong.

But there may be still be some reason for worry, even here.

At a Wal-Mart Supercenter the night before the changeover, in the electronics department, a clock counted down the hours until the changeover. Beside it hung this sign: “Attention customers. We are out of converter boxes at this time until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

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