WASHINGTON — Even if all goes smoothly, next February's digital television shift is likely to generate hundreds of thousands of complaints from television viewers around the country.
A major problem during a test run in Wilmington, N.C., was the inability of over-the-air viewers to receive new digital signals, according to figures collected after the test.
Commercial broadcasters in the North Carolina city volunteered to cease analog programming on Sept. 8, well before the rest of the nation. Of the 1,828 people who complained to the Federal Communications Commission in the first five days, slightly more than half were unable to tune in one or more channels.
All full-power television stations must turn off their analog signals by Feb. 18. 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.
The largest number of calls to the FCC from Wilmington were from viewers of the NBC affiliate, WECT-TV. That station's analog broadcast covers far more ground than its digital signal, meaning some viewers could watch that channel before the switchover but not afterward. A total of 553 complaints were attributed to that issue.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said a smaller digital footprint may affect as many as 15 percent of television markets in the U.S.
The agency is still calculating what impact that may have nationwide.
Some Wilmington callers were able to watch NBC programming from another market. But an undetermined number could not, an issue generating concern at the FCC and Congress.
It's not certain what — if anything — the FCC or broadcasters can do for these viewers, short of recommending that they buy a bigger antenna.
Martin told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Tuesday that a possible solution would be for broadcasters to erect special "repeater" antennas to expand their reach.
"Our goal is to ensure that all viewers in the Wilmington area and the country have access to the same television signals that they did prior to the transition," he said.
Nielsen Media Research said as of July that there are about 13.4 million television households in the U.S. that receive their programming over the air only, about 12 percent of all homes with TVs. In Wilmington, the total is 15,110, or 8.4 percent.
If the Wilmington complaint rate were applied nationally, there would be more than 1.1 million calls to the FCC in the first five days after the change.
Wilmington broadcasters transmitted an informational crawl over an analog signal that included the hot line number. Federal law makes no such allowances after Feb. 17 — all full-power analog signals must cease, so viewers may not know where to turn with problems.
Committee Chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he was concerned that "even with a Herculean investment of time and resources" in Wilmington, there was still a large number of calls.
"On a national level, this may translate to millions of calls," he said. "Unless more is done, Feb. 17, and 18, and 19 will be very long days indeed."
There are also concerns that Wilmington was not representative. Citizens were subjected to an intense public education campaign. The terrain is relatively flat, and as a percentage, fewer viewers rely on over-the-air broadcasting than the nation as a whole.
Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who recommended the test-market idea, wants the agency to conduct more field tests, ramp up the agency's call center and find a way to broadcast an analog message to consumers following the transition.
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