Any glitches in the nationwide switch to digital television will be felt first in Wilmington, N.C.
The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday formally announced that the North Carolina TV market on would be the first to switch from analog signals to an all-digital format. It said five local stations will begin broadcasting only digital signals beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Sept. 8 — five months ahead of the much-advertised Feb. 17 nationwide flip.
"This experience will help us to spot issues that we need to address elsewhere in the country before next February," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in a release Thursday.
The agency said Wilmington is one of "only a limited number of potential test markets," but did not say how many others or if they would also make the early switch.
Wilmington, which volunteered for the switch, was one of eight communities with technology in place to go all digital, an agency spokesman said.
Wilmington is the 135th ranked TV market in the nation, said Jason Oxman, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group for electronics manufacturers and retailers.
About 93 percent of Wilmington's households subscribe to cable or satellite TV, while only 7 percent — or about 12,600 households — still watch over-the-air programming, he said.
While about half of the nation's households own a digital set, it's unclear how many of those 12,600 over-the-air households in Wilmington do. But Oxman said getting the word out will be easy to do in a small market.
All full-power broadcast television stations on Feb. 18 will stop transmitting an analog signal. Viewers with cable or satellite television will not be affected, but over-the-air viewers will need a converter box, which the government is helping subsidize.
Michael Copps, one of the FCC's five commissioners, two months ago first suggested the idea of switching a number of small markets before the nationwide transition.
"Broadway shows open on the road to work out the kinks before opening night," he wrote in a letter then to Martin. "The DTV transition deserves no less."
He had noted that other nations, notably the United Kingdom, have made the digital TV shift in stages.
Lawmakers have expressed concerns that TV viewers with sets that get over-the-air broadcasts may be left with a blank picture once the nationwide switch takes place.
TV broadcasters and others have launched an aggressive advertising campaign to educate viewers about the impending transition and their options, which include getting government coupons to help pay for converter boxes.