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FCC: N.C. viewers ready for digital switch

/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal regulators were upbeat in assessing efforts to educate the people of Wilmington, N.C., as the city shifted to digital TV broadcasting this week, more than five months before the rest of the nation.

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday reported that of the 797 calls received from residents on Monday, when the switch to digital took place, only 23 were from people unfamiliar with the transition. That amounts to less than one-half of a percent of TV households in the city, the agency said.

"While we believe that the transition in Wilmington is going smoothly, the measure of success in Wilmington is what is going to happen next February, and what we are able to learn from this experience and how we apply those lessons as we move this effort across the country," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said.

But that small fraction could add up to a big number. Nationwide, it would equate to about a half-million calls.

Wilmington's commercial broadcasters turned off their old analog signals at noon Monday. The rest of the nation's full-power television stations won't be converting until Feb. 17, 2009, a date set by Congress.

Just over half of the calls, according to the FCC, came from viewers who couldn't get a signal, a finding that tracked with an analysis by Elon University on Tuesday. University researchers also reported high levels of awareness, but problems with reception.

The FCC said 232 calls, the largest number, were from viewers who could not tune into WECT-TV, the city's NBC affiliate. The station's analog signal reached far outside the Wilmington market, while its digital signal has a smaller reach.

Another 178 callers had "reception and technical problems" which include inadequate or nonexistent antennas and weak or spotty signals. The third-largest number of calls, 161, came from viewers who had problems with their converter boxes.

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.

In February, The Nielsen Co. estimated there were more than 13 million households in the U.S. with television sets that can only receive analog broadcasts. 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 digital 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.

There has been some skepticism about how predictive Wilmington's results will be. The FCC paid special attention to the city's residents, attending more than 400 outreach events and town hall meetings and handing out 85,000 publications.

"I saw them everywhere," Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said during a ceremony in the city Monday. "You folks were at blueberry festivals and fireworks shows and hog-callings and all kinds of stuff."