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City first to go digital

By John Dunbar

Associated Press

WILMINGTON, N.C. — With the flick of an 8-foot switch Monday, this Southern city became the first market in the U.S. to make the change to digital-only broadcasting.

The switch served as a centerpiece for the moment that commercial TV broadcasters voluntarily turned off their old-fashioned, inefficient analog signals.

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

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

"This switch is the biggest change in television since it went from black and white to color back in the 1950s," Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin told the ceremony at historic Thalian Hall in downtown Wilmington.

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.

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.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration oversees the government coupon program.

Viewers who are not equipped to receive digital signals will see a screen crawl, informing them of the fact. The crawl includes a toll-free number. The volume of calls may be an early indicator.

Commissioner Michael Copps, who came up with the idea to do a test run, praised Wilmington for volunteering, but said he wished other communities with different kinds of terrain and population patterns had "stepped up to the plate."

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All four of the city’s network TV affiliates as well as the Trinity Broadcasting Network have gone digital only. The local public television station is broadcasting both a digital and analog signal.

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 in February.

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