It’s been a week since Wilmington, North Carolina became the first television market in the country to have virtually all of its television stations convert to digital – ceasing their analog operations. The FCC, NAB and local stations all concentrated great resources in Wilmington in order to ensure that the transition was smooth and, while most observers believe that disruption was minimal, there are some who remain concerned about the results of the Wilmington experiment, and whether it can be replicated in other television markets. While the FCC ramps up its efforts to promote the digital television transition around the country, one Commissioner has suggested several other steps that should be taken (including leaving an analog lifeline for those people who don’t get the message), and Congress is set to weigh in on the issues over the next two weeks. All in all, the push is on for the February 17, 2009 transition to digital.
One of the most thought provoking commentaries on the transition comes from Harry Jessell, editor of TV Newsday. In a commentary published last Friday, Jessell computes that the complaints in Wilmington amounted to about 5% of the television households in that market. If that pattern was to be repeated in all markets around the country, Jessell computes that there would be about 1.7 million homes that will miss the transition and be without TV service on February 18. Jessell further figures that this is a best case number, as all of the publicity showered on Wilmington will not be available in the remainder of the country, and there will likely be more technical problems in other markets with more irregular terrain than Wilmington (which is mostly flat coastal plain) and where TV towers are in different locations. Jessell suggests several steps – including staggered cut-off dates to avoid overloading national DTV hotlines, more education on antenna issues (one of the major issues in Wilmington), and more "soft-tests" (stations ceasing analog operations for limited periods to see if their viewers are ready for the transition). It is a commentary worth reading.