The DTV conversion begins

Logan Wallace/AP
Another first: Wilmington, N.C., Mayor Bill Saffo, left, and FCC chairman Kevin Martin flipped the switch to all-digital TV broadcasts on Monday at noon.

Wilmington, North Carolina: First in flight, first in digital” read the seven-foot switch in downtown Wilmington. The large lever was just for show, but it heralded the city’s conversion to digital-only television broadcasts.

On Monday, Wilmington became the first major American city to take the plunge into DTV. Most of the US will switch signals on Feb. 17, 2009. The coming conversion will only affect about 12 percent of Americans – those who rely on over-the-air broadcast television. Cable and satellite subscribers can go about their business as usual. But some Wilmington residents turned on their antenna TVs Monday afternoon to find static on every channel.

The solution is simple enough: a $40 to $70 converter box that can translate the digital signal into something old TVs can understand (there are free $40 coupons available at Also, most TV sets purchased in the last two years come with these boxes built in.

Congress mandated that TV stations switch to the more efficient digital signals to free up the air waves for other media (such as cellphones, wireless Internet, and emergency calls) while also allowing for more TV channels and clearer pictures.

The tradeoff wasn't worth it, viewer Lewis Felton told NPR.

Felton thought he was prepared. Months ago, he took advantage of the federally sponsored coupon program that allowed him to buy analog-to-digital converter boxes at a discount. He got the one in his bedroom hooked up properly, but the TV in his kitchen wasn't cooperating.
Felton had the converter box working until a few days ago, when he pushed what was clearly the wrong button on one of his remotes. Felton is one of those viewers the FCC is most worried about: He's older, he lives in a rural area, he doesn't have cable or satellite, and he watches over-the-air television on analog TVs. And hours after the switch, he was already discouraged.
"I just think they should have just let it alone; that's my thinking," he said.

Wilmington agreed to play DTV guinea pig to allow the Federal Communications Commission to test out the conversation process and see what kinks occur, such as Felton's issues. The Wilmington market has 180,000 households with a television, according to Neilsen stats, and about 8 percent of those use antennas – less than the national average. Despite months of focused attention on the Wilmington area, lots of people had problems like Felton's, reports the Wall Street Journal.

By midafternoon, some 74 phone calls had come into the offices of sister stations WSFX-TV, a Fox affiliate, and WECT-TV, an NBC affiliate. Most were from people who needed help hooking up or programming their new set-top converter boxes.

Now the FCC will work to tailor their plan to ensure that the remaining 13 million households with analog TV won't fall into similar traps next year.

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