So here we are. The February 17th Digital Television Deadline has arrived and nothing has changed in eastern North Carolina.
I hope you’re not going to tell me that you haven’t heard about the digital television transition. WITN, along with every other broadcast television station in the nation, has been required to run Public Service Announcements about the change since last spring. The Federal Communication Commission mandated that we run a minimum of 16 spots per week with one-fourth airing in prime time. In addition we have been required to air 16 crawls or graphics each week warning of the change.
Last week Congress voted to delay the digital transition by four months. President Obama signed the bill into law and the new digital deadline is June 12th, just in time for Hurricane Season. However, local stations still had the option to go ahead and shut down their analog transmitters on February 17th if they informed (warned) the FCC by February 9th. Almost 500 stations decided to stick with the February 17th shut-down, but the FCC raised concerns with over 100 of these stations, citing a concern for the public interest.
In eastern North Carolina, WITN and all of the other local broadcasters will keep our analog transmitters up and running until June. We should start offering tours at our transmitter sites and let you watch the electric meters spin around and around.
How did we ever get to this point?
Government officials are concerned that people who only get their television programming over-the-airwaves by antenna will be left in the dark. This transition has been in the works for several years, but digital converter boxes did not become widely available until 2008. These converter boxes are priced between $45 - $60 and converter coupon program was created to offer $40 coupons to help defray the cost of the boxes. The coupon program has only been up and running for about a year. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration almost 48-million coupons have been mailed out with less than half being redeemed. Meanwhile almost one-third have expired. The program “ran out of money” in January and is bogged down and consumers would be forced to pay full-price to get a converter right now.
So just how many people would be left in the dark? It’s hard to say, but according to Nielsen Media Research around 11% of the households in eastern North Carolina watch television by way of antenna only. That works out to almost 32,000 households. Nielsen has estimated that about 5% of the households in America are not ready for the transition. In North Carolina there have been more than 1.5-million coupon requests. In the Swan Quarter area of Hyde County there have been almost 1,000 requests for coupons. How many of the coupons have been delivered and redeemed is anyone’s guess.
What you may not have heard about this digital delay is that the digital transition education campaign will continue. Stations that go ahead and make the switch now must continue to run PSA’s explaining the switch until the end of March. Stations, like WITN, that will wait until June 12th must continue running a minimum of 16 spots a week along with 16 crawls or graphics. Starting March 4th we must begin the 100 Day Digital Deadline Countdown all over again. In June, we must run crawls every hour of the day warning that Analog TV is about to go away.
What lessons have we learned over the past year and what is our course of action? In markets where the digital switch has taken place, antennas seemed to be the biggest problem. The FCC has decided that WITN will now broadcast in UHF on digital channel 32 only. If you use an antenna, you will need one that picks up UHF signals. You may need to aim that antenna towards our broadcast tower in Grifton to get the best reception. Since we are currently transmitting on digital channel 32, and won’t change our channel, you can scan for WITN-DT now, lock in the channel and you’re ready. Other local stations will be changing their channel on June 12th and you may find that you will need to re-scan for those channels. You may also find that the antenna that picks those channels up now, won’t pick them up on June 12th.
Most of the questions we get here at WITN are about antennas, where to buy converters and how to pick up the new digital signals with a battery-operated TV. Hurricane Season starts on June 1st. The new digital transition date is June 12th. The sooner we get to this transition, the sooner the electronics industry will begin working on answers to these questions. Stay tuned…………. We will try to have answers for you in the coming weeks.