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Wilmington, NC to be Transition Guinea Pig

May 11, 2008

FCC Commissioner Copps' suggestion to run an early trial analog shut-down has borne fruit. At noon on September 8, commercial TV stations in the coastal city of Wilmington, NC will shut off their analog signals -- a preview of what will happen on a national scale in February 2009. Full story below.

I've also got some converter box information, a report on a bunch of new Pioneer HDTVs and Blu-ray players, and some more of those consumer comments to the FCC.

For Wilmington, NC, the end of the DTV transition will arrive in less than four months. If all goes smoothly, the transition players in government and industry will be all smiles and pat themselves on the back. If there is chaos, the faces will be grim; excuses and pointing fingers will be the rule.

The FCC and the broadcast industry are pulling out all the stops to make sure the former is the case. Wilmington is going to be getting a lot of hand-holding during the next few months -- far more than what had been planned for the country at large.

It is for that reason that Commissoner Adelstein noted:

"If we put massive resources into making this succeed, all out of proportion to what we do elsewhere, will we gain a false sense of complacency? I sure hope not.

"Ad hoc efforts are not a substitute for a thoughtful, coordinated plan. Every community in America deserves nothing less than what we will put into Wilmington. A failure to plan is a plan to fail.

"Perhaps today will be the beginning of the Commission developing a coordinated plan for all media markets in America."

At least now (or in four months), we'll know better where to put the resources for the rest of the country (remembering that the FCC is set to get $20 million for consumer education beginning in October -- they have very little now).

So, why pick Wilmington?

Wilmington ranks 135 in the country out of 210 designated TV market areas (DMAs). That's relatively small, with 179,760 TV households (includes Wilmington and surrounding counties). Easier to manage than, say, #7 Boston, with 2.4 million TV households.

Wilmington is one of a handful of market areas in the country where all of the full-power commercial TV stations were assigned the same interim digital channel (used now during the transition) as their final post-transition digital channel. That means they don't have to switch digital channels at the end of the transition, and in the case of those stations in Wilmington, they are already fully built-out and operating at full post-transition digital signal strength.

At the end of the transition, whether that be February 17, 2009, September 8, 2008, or tomorrow, all they have to do is turn off their analog transmitter. The stations are ready to go now.

Getting their viewers ready is another matter.

FCC Chairman Martin elaborated the steps the FCC would be taking to make this happen:

"First, we are working closely with all the broadcasters in the Wilmington, North Carolina market to ensure that they are technically ready to transition early.

"Second, a Wilmington team, comprised of FCC staffers, is poised to be on the ground in every county of the Wilmington, North Carolina DMA starting next week for the months leading up to the transition to educate consumers about this early transition. In addition, others from the Commission plan on traveling several times to Wilmington, North Carolina in the next few weeks, July, and again in August to do public events and promote the transition via the local media.

"Third, Ketchum, our outside PR consultant is in the process of developing 15, 30, and 60 second radio and TV PSAs, and outside billboard advertising, specific to the Wilmington market, highlighting the early transition.

"Fourth, we are tailoring specific posters and FCC publications for the Wilmington, NC market that we will distribute to local county officials and city government officials, library systems, faith-based organizations, hospitals, sports leagues, senior centers, and other local grass roots and community-based organizations.

"Finally, we are already planning to participate in the following local events in the Wilmington, North Carolina area in the near future:"

Here's some of them: River Front Farmer's Market, Wilmington City Council meeting, White Lake Water Festival, New Hanover Senior Center, Annual Health & Fitness Fair.

The Commission is also coordinating with NTIA and local retailers to be sure that digital-to-analog converter boxes are readily available.

The Wilmington PBS station will continue broadcasting on both analog and digital channels until February 2009, as will one low-power station. People who don't quite make the early deadline will have at least one station to watch.

CNET has some converter box reviews out:

GE -- "The bottom line: The GE 22730 DTV converter box is difficult to use and has subpar video quality, so you're better off going with a different converter box." This is the box with the wavy top. Full review.

Zenith/Insignia -- "The bottom line: The Zenith DTT900 DTV converter box has an easy-to-use design and solid video quality, but buyers should be aware of cheaper--and possibly better--alternatives coming in the future." Full review.

RCA -- "The bottom line: Good reception, respectable video quality, and a basic EPG make the RCA DTA800 an excellent DTV converter box, despite some slightly tricky setup snags." They say the video quality is not quite as good as the Zenith/Insignia box. Full review.

Pioneer seems to be positioning itself as a custom-install brand, now that Panasonic will be building their plasma sets. They've got a flock of new products out, to wit:

They have just announced an Elite KURO LCoS projector, developed specifically for the custom-install market. If you're in the market, it will be out in June for $9000 msrp.

Their new KURO plasma flat-panels have darker blacks, five times better than last year's sets.

The "Signature Series" Elite KURO monitors (no tuners) come in 50" and 60" flavors, and will be available respectively in October and August. Prices TBA.

There are also two new Elite KURO high-definition plasma HDTVs: 50" -- in June for $5000, and 60" -- in June for $6500.

Pioneer will introduce a couple of new Blu-ray players this summer.

The BDP-51FD will decode lossless audio formats, Dolby TrueHD right away and DTS-HD Master Audio after a later firmware update -- $599. Later in the summer the higher-grade BDP-05FD will be released, sporting gold-plated connectors and aluminum front bezel -- $799.

Those pesky consumers are at it again, dropping irritating comments in FCC regulatory dockets (ya gotta love 'em).

From Fort Collins, CO:

"In my experience in Colorado, I have not seen any retail stores with DTV converter boxes plugged in, on display. Could a written suggestion be made to stores in the DTV coupon program to attempt to display at least one converter box on-shelf, and in operation? I guess most stores don't have outdoor antennas, but in some areas perhaps even an indoor antenna could provide enough signal to show a few stations. I think it's an oversight that working models arenŐt displayed now, and if more people saw the boxes in operation, it would help reinforce their ease of use."

Here too. They want you to buy a big HDTV!

From Ottumwa, IA (not Radar O'Reilly, honest):

"We have satellite TV (Dish), but have to receive local news/programming from a TV antenna. Those "local" stations are: ABC KTVO 3(Kirksville, MO, 60 miles) or ABC 5 (West Des Moines, NBC WHO 13, and CBS KCCI 8 in Des Moines, 90 miles away. Why can't we receive these stations over our satellite dish? We have HDTV, but when it comes time to switch over to all digital, will we lose all local access? This needs to be addressed. Thank you for looking into this problem."

You're good to go with an HDTV, thank you.

It's understandable that consumers are confused, when the experts who are advising them sometimes don't seem to have a clue. Take, for instance, this statement in a recent DTV transition article on Sound & Vision magazine's web site ("Is your TV already obsolete?"). (Bold emphasis added)

"Most broadcasters will cease analog, over-the-air (OTA) transmissions at midnight on Tuesday, February 17, 2009. The bandwidth for the familiar TV channels (2 to 13, and 14 to 69) will be reallocated to other uses. There will be a few exceptions, such as some low-power broadcasts that will remain analog."

That pretty much gives the impression that none of our "familiar TV channels" will be used for television broadcasting after the end of the transition (and I've talked to some people who believed that -- thought that everyone would have to get cable or satellite!).

When broadcasters give up their analog channels (keeping only a digital channel), they will all have an "in-core" channel (2 through 51). "Out-of-core" channels 52 - 69 are currently still used for TV, but those channels, and only those channels will be reallocated for other uses at the end of the transition.

The radio spectrum that is used for the "out-of-core" TV channels 52-69 has already been auctioned off for wireless services, except for the D-block frequencies reserved for emergency personnel, which did not receive a big enough bid. (Winning bidders won't take possession until after the end of the transition.)

I clarified this issue for the S&V people; they said they'd look into it, but it's been more than a week and the mistake is still there.

The low-power TV stations will also be switching over to digital, just not as soon as the others.

Incidently, TV channels are the same whether used for analog or digital broadcasts -- each channel takes up 6 MHz worth of radio frequencies.

And why did they say "(2 to 13, and 14 to 69)" instead of simply "2 to 69"? Beats me, except that 2-13 are VHF (very high frequency) channels and 14-69 are UHF (ultra high frequency) channels. Still doesn't make any sense in the context.

Verizon has also been plying the FCC dockets, reporting on their "ex-parte" contacts with FCC officials. Re a May 6 meeting, they have this to say about the AFD standard, which if implemented would get rid of those tiny "postage stamp" pictures on 4:3 TVs:

"Similarly, we urged the Commission not to require video providers to employ the active format description (AFD) standards, given that those standards are not widely adopted by broadcasters and that video providers already have an incentive to use those standards if they will benefit consumers. Further, in the absence of some indication of a problem concerning these issues, regulation is unnecessary, particularly given a video provider's strong incentive to ensure a high quality viewing experience for its customers."

As always, the logic these lobbyists employ to screw consumers is amazing! Certainly nothing beats a regulation as an effective incentive.

Until next week . . .