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Clearer picture of digital rollout seen

The first city to switch signals offers valuable lessons ahead of the U.S. move in February.

September 09, 2008|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Thousands of households that rely on television antennas here began receiving better-looking programming Monday, as the coastal city became the nation's first to switch to all-digital TV signals.

But Vivian C. Brown didn't get the picture.

The 79-year-old had heeded the barrage of announcements urging viewers like herself to receive a $40 government coupon and buy a special converter box to receive the clearer signals. But she couldn't figure out how to set it up.

"I'm a nervous wreck, just trying to get it going," she said.

Fortunately for her, federal and city officials had arranged for Wilmington firefighters to help out, with the bonus of being able to check for working smoke detectors. Assistant Chief Frank Blackley, who lives nearby, went to Brown's pale-green single-story house at the end of a sandy driveway lined with magnolia trees -- and had her watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show" within minutes.

Such scenes will offer valuable lessons for Los Angeles and other cities as the rest of the country prepares to shut off analog signals and go all-digital in February. The government-mandated move will free up more airwaves for public safety and wireless services.

Whether Wilmington, the nation's 135th-largest media market, serves as a great test for major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles remains to be seen. Inspector Ron Haralson of the Los Angeles County Fire Department said it would be difficult to send firefighters to help senior citizens hook up converter boxes.

"We have a lot of seniors," he said.

But the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that it had already learned from Wilmington's apparently successful transition about how to reach vulnerable groups that depend on free over-the-air TV.

"The success of Wilmington is not what happens at 12 noon today when we flip the switch," FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin told a festive gathering at City Hall awaiting what's been dubbed here The Big Switch. "The measure of success . . . is what's going to happen next February and what we're going to be able to learn from what occurs here in Wilmington that we can take around the country."

At noon, Martin and Mayor Bill Saffo flipped a symbolic 7-foot-tall switch, and broadcasters stopped their analog programming. There appeared to be few widespread troubles. Several hundred people called the local TV stations or a toll-free FCC number to report problems as of Monday night, with many complaining that they couldn't get their converter boxes to work.

"Once you talk them through this and they get their picture, voila, they're happy campers," said Gary McNair, general manager of WECT, the local NBC affiliate. The FCC plans to analyze the results of the test and report to lawmakers this month.

Congress ordered broadcasters to give up their analog channels and start broadcasting only in digital to free up more airwaves for public safety and wireless services. The more efficient digital signals offer sharper pictures and allow broadcasters to air several programs at the same time on one channel.

Cable, satellite and phone company TV viewers should not be affected. But the approximately 12% of U.S. households -- 8% in Wilmington -- that rely on rabbit ears or rooftop antennas need to get a new digital TV set or a converter box.

Joe Porter, 66, of Wilmington went to Wal-Mart on Monday afternoon to buy two boxes for older spare TVs in his house. But he found an empty shelf. After selling 434 boxes last week, the store ran out Sunday, electronics manager Chuck Myers said. A shipment of 232 was set to arrive Monday night.

The shortage highlighted another goal of officials before the February conversion -- get people to act early.

Brown didn't wait until the last minute. She bought her converter box three months ago.

"The way they told it on the TV all the time was you just hook it up to your antenna," Brown said. "It's not that simple."

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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